WASHINGTON - The tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle inevitably summons memories of the Challenger disaster of 17 years ago, but the fact is peril has been a co-pilot on every manned space flight since the program was launched nearly half a century ago.
My own oldest memory goes back nearly 44 years to April 9, 1959, when seven fresh-faced military test pilots were introduced to a roomful of Washington reporters and television cameras in a building not far from the White House.
They were called the Mercury 7, selected from a host of eager applicants to make the first American manned flights into space. They were a rugged-looking team, and we gazed on them with more than a little wonder about what would make any of them put their lives on the line, even for so glamorous an adventure.
Each of the seven - M. Scott Carpenter, L. Gordon Cooper Jr., John H. Glenn Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Walter M. Schirra Jr., Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Donald K. "Deke" Slayton - recited why they were so willing to do so. A guessing game immediately began over which of them would be picked to be the first American in space.
The popular favorite was a boyish blond-haired fellow who smilingly introduced himself, as I recall, as "the lonely Marine" in the bunch, the others being Air Force and Navy pilots. Those of us who guessed it would be Mr. Glenn were wrong; the honor instead went to the celebrated hotshot in the pack, Al Shepard, whose 15-minute flight and safe return kept millions of Americans breathlessly glued to their television screens.
But Mr. Glenn got to make the first U.S. flight to orbit the Earth and went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate from Ohio. Before that happened, however, he famously slipped in his bathtub and was seriously injured, leading to exhaustive tests about whether his time in space had caused serious loss of equilibrium or some other mysterious space malady. It hadn't.
After a distinguished career in the Senate and a failed bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1984, Mr. Glenn in 1998 became a hero all over again by laughing at his age of 77 and making another space jaunt, this time much farther into the heavens.
By the time the Mercury program had been succeeded by the more ambitious Apollo and Gemini excursions, we Americans had become pretty blasM-i about space travel, viewing it as commonplace to the point that many of us didn't bother to watch the televised takeoffs and landings, if they were televised at all after a while.
One night shortly after a younger astronaut had completed a "routine" space mission, I encountered Mr. Glenn, whose Senate campaigns I had covered, at a reception. I carelessly observed that space flight now seemed "a piece of cake."
The usually congenial Mr. Glenn became red-faced. He energetically recalled that at the end of his orbital flight, his cabin instruments had indicated a possible problem with the heat shield on his capsule, failure of which would have burned him to a crisp upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. He said something like: "It didn't seem like any piece of cake to me!"
For most of us Earth-bound mortals, though, the space program was so astoundingly successful that we did come to take that success as a matter of course.
It took the Challenger tragedy to jolt us out of that ill-informed complacency and another 17 years to be reminded again by the Columbia disaster of the astonishing courage and confidence of the men and women who voluntarily undertake this test that is so unimaginable for most of us.
One of the Mercury 7, Gus Grissom, after making two space flights, perished on the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center in a fire in his Apollo spacecraft. Alan Shepard and Deke Slayton also are gone, from causes unrelated to space travel. More than two dozen other later astronauts are deceased, in various circumstances.
But the lure of space keeps many other American pioneers trained and ready to take their chances in the beckoning void.
Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.