WASHINGTON - Seventeen years after the loss of the space shuttle Challenger, the tragedy has been repeated. Seven brave souls and the space shuttle Columbia were lost about 40 miles above Texas amid a pristine blue sky.
I fear that before the last piece of this marvelous spacecraft fell to Earth, the hand-wringing, finger-pointing and calls for the end of human space flight were begun by some.
I would say to all those who would think this way that to do so would dishonor the memories, careers and dreams of the heroic crew of Columbia.
A few months before the Challenger accident, I had the honor to sit with its commander, Dick Scobee, and discuss the future of space flight. One of the subjects we talked about was the possibility of the loss of a crew. He was emphatic that should that ever happen, the space program would have to learn the cause, fix the problem and then redouble its effort to get humankind into space. To do otherwise, he said, would be to waste the sacrifice of those lost.
In the coming days, we will hear eloquent and heartfelt words from President Bush, members of Congress and various government officials. They will be heartfelt, but they still may not be enough to satisfy grieving families or those who strive to reach for the stars.
Years ago, when I wrote my book Footprints, I had the chance to speak with all 12 moonwalkers. To a man, they said that until we have a president and Congress who deeply believe in the need for a vital and active human space flight program, it would continue to bump along with no clear direction or mission.
For far too many politicians, human space flight is not tangible and can "bring them no votes back home." At what point do they sacrifice imaginary votes for the good of our nation, the good of the world and the good of science? The American people believe in space, and many understand that NASA and the United Space Alliance have been nickled and dimed over the last several years as space has taken a back seat to other priorities, pork barrel politics or ignorance.
In my opinion, the budget of NASA should be doubled and visionaries allowed to grab control of the reins of our space program. The moon, Mars, a permanent human presence in space and our very future await those willing to dream and to take risks.
As the finger-pointing starts and as doubts about the value of human space flight are raised, one thing should be understood. The space shuttle fleet is still state-of-the-art and is maintained by dedicated teams who understand the fate they hold in their hands.
Because NASA and the United States have become so good at launching safe shuttle flights, the American people, our politicians and media have grown complacent and even bored with the act. The loss of Columbia tragically reminds us all of the risk of human space flight.
The seven astronauts who boarded Columbia on Jan. 16 understood that risk, believed in their spacecraft and were anxious to push the envelope. Their memories and sacrifice should not be dishonored with hollow words and a return to the status quo.
The heroic crews of Challenger and Columbia gave their lives blazing the trail to space. It is our duty as a nation and as a people to expand those trails and follow their dreams.
Douglas MacKinnon, author of Footprints (Acropolis Books, 1989), a book about the 12 men who walked on the moon, is former press secretary to Senator Bob Dole and is a former White House and Pentagon official.