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Beyond The Lights In the Sky

March 2003
By Erik Cagle

By now it is a tired cliche: Where were you and what were you doing when you heard that so-and-so happened? But shared experiences are always enduring.

On February 1, 2003, my family of four visited The Pizza Box in Washington Township, NJ, perhaps the finest Italian eatery in Gloucester County (with apologies to Italian Affair). We were killing time as prospective buyers perused our home.

As we sat down, the nearby television images of what appeared to be meteor debris or a fallen star shooting across a clear blue sky stole any appetite I would have that afternoon. The visual was accompanied by a tag line that read, "Space Shuttle Columbia Explodes."

The fiery white dots raced across the sky, gradually breaking into smaller chunks until the fireballs were reduced to vapor trails. Dumbfounded, I asked the restaurant proprietor if it had been a manned mission. A foolish question for sure, but I wanted to believe that no one had perished in the disaster, that somehow, the seven people were safe. Sadly, another tragedy had struck.

It was difficult to look away from the television screen. The network reporter repeated the news ad nauseum, as all networks would that weekend. There was nothing left to say, yet people felt obligated to say something. It was a horrific incident to witness and, as was the case with the previous space shuttle disaster, the 1986 Challenger explosion on takeoff, we would all be subjected to reliving it over and over.

People die every day. Accidents claim the lives of thousands each year. Someone mourns for another's loss, somewhere, and it is a tragedy...for them. It is thy common fate of all, a wise man once said.

But this loss touched all. And with good reason.

The term heroes is loosely used these days; the term has lost all relevance. Many of the people who are looked at reverently are hardly cut of idolized stock.

Police officers, firefighters, astronauts and such lose their hero luster by about the time children reach middle school age. They're replaced by hip-hop performers and skateboarders. Who needs a 45-year-old scientist and applied microgravity research when you have Eminem discussing the merits of sexually abusing young girls?

It is around this age that youngsters discover sex, arrogance, self-absorption, self-aggrandizing, manipulation, deceit and general boorish behavior. There are some other elements that don't immediately come to mind, but you get the picture.

Self Absorption

To be fair, a good many adults are absorbed in our own little worlds, asking not what we can do for our country, but what our country can do for us. We plow through our lot in life, increasing assets and decreasing debt, all the while trying to enjoy whatever creature comforts the fruits of our labor can provide. This is not brow-beating; it's a fundamental truth. It is life, I suppose.

But it is somewhere between point A and point B that a good many of us tuck away our youthful idealism and noble dreams. For most of us, these dreams are not practical or realistic.

There is much to admire about people who have evolved to the degree of studying the cosmos up close and personal. It is an altruistic endeavor, a thirst-quenching desire to learn and discover for the greater good of mankind. Prescient thinking cannot be found on a quarterly report; forward-looking statements come in the form of what possibilities lie ahead in the vast, unknown wilderness above our tiny planet. There are no projections, only discovery. Try selling that to the board of directors.

Less Heralded

Astronauts certainly aren't status seekers, at least in the pop culture sense. They're more likely to be found on a PBS show discussing space's effect on photosynthesis rather than showcasing their new Humvee on MTV's "Cribs."

For that matter, an astronaut's salary would hardly justify such a decadent possession. The pay scale for this occupation is between $56,257 and $86,974, according to NASA's Website. Considering the vast, comprehensive educational requirements of candidates, the private sector is far, far more attractive in terms of compensation. But it's a safe guess to say that money is not a motivating factor for these folks.

Give President Bush credit in his unwavering support for the continuation of the space program. Like early U.S. settlers who died en route to new possibilities out West, our road to unknown celestial frontiers must not be detoured. When the wheel comes off the wagon, it must be replaced for the long journey ahead.

Seven people perished February 1—not in pursuit of financial benefit, territorial gain or the advancement of a religious, political or ethnic agenda. To these seven, and the next group that climbs into a space shuttle, we owe a debt of gratitude and more than a passing glance toward the heavens.


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