IT HAS BEEN just 100 years since the Wright brothers pushed their fragile little craft into the air at Kitty Hawk, N.C. What strides we have made in manned flight since then -- and yet how fragile the whole enterprise remains.
We send men and women and machines to the farthest reaches of the atmosphere and beyond, and yet they are merely men and women and machines. Risk attends their every voyage; the bolder, the riskier.
We know this. We know that there is something insupportable about human beings traveling at 18 times the speed of sound, 40 miles high in the air, plunging toward a rendezvous with Earth.
Yet we are still shocked at failure.
On a misty winter's morning in Maryland, the news of the Columbia shuttle disaster cut through the clutter of a Saturday's mundane chores. Television gathered us around, just as it had in the earliest days of the space program. TV brought that clear Texas sky -- slashed, omen-like, by the streaking debris -- into our homes. What could have happened? What does this mean?
The space shuttle program has had its full share of problems, bureaucratic and otherwise, over the years -- many, of course, brought to light by the Challenger explosion in 1986. The Columbia was more than 20 years old. Was it still up to the job?
There will be a thousand technical questions, and, in the course of time, most likely a thousand technical answers. These will provide a myriad of details, but leave something missing in the center.
"It's beyond imagination," said Commander William McCool a few days ago, when asked by an interviewer on the ground to describe space flight. Earthbound, we would guess he had that about right. We can never truly sense the wonder the Columbia crew must have felt in their high orbits, nor can we fully grasp the moment when the end was at hand. But we can gaze at the sky -- and salute them.