Random acts of bravery

The tragedy of the space shuttle Columbia

Courtesy Of NASA

I made a mistake this morning. I walked away from the TV while my son, Hunter, was watching Good Morning, America. My 5-year-old boy, whose pre-adolescent (and therefore probably premature) dream is to become an astronaut, was on his morning perch on the heater vent, peering at the television through the slats of our couch.

When Kathleen came in, he was turned away from the TV, face in his hands. Upset, he asked her to turn the tube off, possibly a first in our household. He’d just watched a report on the TV space shuttle Columbia tragedy.

Does this sound like it’s going to be rumination on violent images or that bad news should be censored so that children will never be faced with it? No, I don’t subscribe to that theory at all. I think children should have reality explained to them as soon as they are intellectually developed enough to frame the questions.

In fact, I’m not sure what this essay will be. I suppose it boils down to what I’m going to say to Hunter when he gets the data straight enough in his own head to ask questions. I guess it’s really for me because sometimes I don’t really know how I feel about events until I write my thoughts down.

Some better parent could probably say right off the top of his or her head what the moral to the space shuttle disaster is; maybe someone less uncertain or more religious could be glib about the lessons learned. I, like many people, search for meaning in meaningless events. I guess the lesson learned is about courage.

“Hunter,” I’m going to say after I set him on my lap, “there are brave people in this world. Look around you; there are brave people everywhere. There are police, firemen and teachers, mommies and daddies, fishermen on the stormy seas, soldiers and doctors and nurses. I think the bravest of all are the astronauts.

“People who rush into fires or battles or who help build tall buildings aren’t the only brave people. Brave people are the ones who don’t run from the things they are afraid of. Brave people are the ones who help people who aren’t as strong or as bold. Brave people are the ones who serve other people. Brave people are the ones who explore things they don’t understand, so that all the rest of us can understand them.

“Sometimes the places the brave people have to go are scary. Sometimes the brave people go to scary places to make it so the rest of us can go those places and not be afraid. Sometimes, when the brave people go to those scary places, bad things happen, and if they are prepared, sometimes they survive. For those seven astronauts that you saw on TV, all the preparation in the world wasn’t enough, and they died, but they’ll live on in the minds of people like you and me who appreciate their sacrifice and their bravery.”

I’m not trying to be saccharine. I’m a big planner of things I’d like to say to people, including my family, but somehow my plans rarely come to harvest—maybe Hunter’ll read this sometime down the road.

My hope is that adults, too, will learn some lessons from this tragedy. I hope that another catastrophe on NASA’s record won’t become the undoing of the agency. There is no bureau in our government that plays for higher stakes than the space agency. When there is an accident or a misfire or a lost Martian rover, it costs taxpayers millions upon millions, and some myopic visionaries can only see the loss of money. The problem is that there are moments in manned space flight where there must be a level of perfection that is at the edge of our species’ ability, and if and when imperfections arise, people die and things explode. It is imperative that these losses are not wasted.

I hope that the crew members—Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick Husband, William McCool and Ilan Ramon—are remembered as heroes. I’m ashamed to say that the only name I remember from the Challenger accident is the teacher who was aboard, Christa McAuliffe. When I look at the most dramatic images in my mind, the explosion of the Challenger is near the top. I thought I’d never forget that January morning in 1986, but so many images have been layered on top that it has blurred. I’ll bet I’m not the only one.

It’s to the nation’s sadness that this disaster came so close on the heels of Sept. 11. We had barely begun moving out of mourning those tragic losses, all those people whom we will never begin to remember by name—there are just too many. Too many heroes.

I think the reason little boys and girls dream of being astronauts, policemen or fire fighters is because they don’t really understand the nature of sacrifice, just as they don’t really understand the concept of death—not even when someone close to them goes away and never comes back. I think children dream of being heroes because they want to be able to do the things they are afraid to do.

As I write this, I think maybe the concepts of sacrifice and bravery and exploration are something we never really come to understand. It seems these heroes remain unsung because some people think heroes do the things they do for some other reason than to help humanity—excitement, curiosity, gratitude or self-aggrandizement. I’ve heard similar arguments made about why teachers don’t deserve to make a decent wage—their reward is the good feeling they get from imparting knowledge.

This is a scary world we’ve brought our children into. I hope when they see things like the sacrifice made by the people on the shuttles Columbia and the Challenger and Apollo 1 before that, they have someone capable of explaining to them that sacrifice for the betterment of mankind is the highest calling. I hope I’m up to explaining it to my son.

And I hope Hunter still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up.