The astronauts died as the intense heat of re-entry entered the spaceship through a hole in the wing, caused by a chunk of foam insulation that came off during liftoff. That insulation punctured the wing and the second shuttle disaster shocked and saddened a nation.
So, Friday’s ceremony was intensely fitting, reminding us once again of the risk astronauts faced every time they were seated in the shuttle, ready for a liftoff procedure that just a few years earlier had failed, resulting in an explosion that took the lives of those brave astronauts.
But this time, it was not the liftoff that caused the disaster, but re-entry. They were only 16 minutes away from a victorious touchdown at Cape Canaveral when their spaceship failed and the tremendous forces of re-entry killed them.
There was some talk at the time of ending the program. Instead, it was placed on a two-year hiatus while the engineers and other scientists of NASA were charged with finding out what had happened and why, and what steps were needed to correct the problem.
They did just that and the shuttle program resumed, running until 2009 and completing its mission of building the International Space Station, which at this moment is orbiting the Earth, conducting experiments that could one day lead to space exploration far beyond the limits we now face.
The shuttle program suffered two tragic accidents that took the lives of some of our best and brightest astronauts. But the program endured, and our space efforts learned a lot from those tragedies. The price for that knowledge was too high, and we can do nothing but offer our condolences to their families.
“May our broken hearts continue to heal, and may beauty continue to replace the ashes,” said Evelyn Husband Thompson, the widow of Columbia commander Rick Husband.
The memory of her husband and the other astronauts provides beauty we can never pay for. They paid the ultimate price in service to their country.
It was appropriate to mark the 10-year anniversary of that horrible day. We should never forget that space travel is still dangerous and required courage from the astronauts and their families.