Part of the shock of the loss of the Challenger in 1986 and the loss of the space shuttle Columbia less than a week ago is that before each tragedy American allowed themselves to become complacent about space travel.
Shuttles took off and shuttles landed with barely a notice. Ellen Goodman, the columnist, acknowledged with some embarrassment that she didn't even know a space shuttle was up there until she heard that the Columbia had disintegrated during re-entry.
But the crews never became complacent. Each and every time an astronaut buckled up preparatory to being blasted more than 100 miles high at speeds of about 18,000 mph, he or she knew the dangers. Astronauts have always known they could die in space flight.
Which doesn't make it any easier to accept when it happens, but it does illuminate the question, should we do it again? Should we continue to send men and women into space, knowing the dangers?
The answer is yes.
Look to the future
Space flight cannot be viewed through the prism of today, tomorrow or a thousand tomorrows. It must be seen in terms of decades, even centuries.
Man has only known flight for one century. This is the centennial year for the Wright Brothers' success at Kitty Hawk. And man has been going into space for just four decades.
We have never gone farther than the moon. Rarely stayed in orbit for more than several months. We've only scratched the surface of space travel, and we're not about to stop now.
The space program, begun as little more than an exercise in international power politics, has paid enormous dividends. "Beating the Russians to the moon" was an national goal in the 1960s, but by the time we got there, we realized there was much more to space than a race.
The advances in medicine and science -- from mathematics, to computer, to metallurgical -- has been incalculable. Seventeen American lives have been lost in space exploration since 1961. How many lives are saved every day through the use of medical technology such as the CAT scan, which was developed through NASA technology?
Tomorrow morning, millions of Americans will observe a moment of silence. It will have been only a week since the disaster, which is a very short time in which to absorb the enormity of what happened. And it will be weeks or months of exhaustive review and study before we know what went wrong.
But we know one thing now, and that is that we can't simply walk away from space flight. We know that the shuttles must fly again and that a successor to the shuttle must be developed.
We know that humans are driven to explore, that they are meant to learn, and that they are always looking beyond the next boundary.
In the 21st century, that boundary is space.