Viewpoint -- Hail, Columbia

Dec. 21, 2004
Reflections on the loss of the crew of the space shuttle.

I remember exactly where I was when I heard. I was driving to pick up some photographic prints from a processor in Washington, D.C. To pick up some prints of color slides of new snow amongst the leafless trees taken in western Maryland in the days just before New Year's. Prints, as I look at them now, that in their light and shadow reflect a simple and stark beauty and hide from the eye the wondrous natural complexity that is a tree or a snowflake. The crew of Columbia had spent 16 days in space, among the simple and stark beauty of the stars, exploring the complexity of how people and things function far above the surface of Earth. Although in space they were less than the distance from Washington, D.C., to New York City away, they were on the frontier. They were on the frontier of discovery and of human understanding. "A Longing to Explore the Stars" read the Washington Post's headline on its profile of Columbia commander Rick Douglas Husband. "Scientist and Pilot Followed a Straight Path to Stars" read the Post's headline on its profile of Michael P. Anderson, Columbia's payload commander. They and their five colleagues were living the words that Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote more than 150 years ago about the mythic explorer Ulysses' desire "To follow knowledge, like a sinking star,/beyond the utmost bound of human thought." I have had the privilege of standing at the place on Earth where Alan Shepherd and John Glenn left on their pioneering trips into space. I have stood on Pad 39B at Cape Canaveral, the place on Earth where Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins left for humankind's first landing on the moon. I have sped supersonically across the Atlantic Ocean more than 10 miles above the earth at the place where the pastel blue of the atmosphere starts the transition to the blue-blackness of space. Each has been an inspiring experience. Each has changed the ways I look at Earth and at space. And each seems so insignificant compared with what the crew of the Columbia was doing. Humankind has been going into space for more than four decades now. And simply the passage of that amount of time is enough to make the journeys seem routine. But it is the presence of people that has made each space flight different from each of the ones that went before. It is the presence of people that will make a difference on each future flight. The continuing momentum behind manned space flight, wrote Washington Post Staff Writer Rick Weiss in last Sunday's paper, "reflects a sensibility, albeit somewhat amorphous, among many that space is a frontier no less worthy of exploration than was the New World or the Wild West. Implicit in that sensibility, some said, is the dream that space may be the place where humanity might at last 'get it right.'" In space humankind has already remarkably advanced biology, botany, biotechnology, materials science and medicine. But the dream of 'getting it right' goes beyond these achievements and rightly so. Weiss quoted Rick Tumlinson, founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, as saying, "All our highest aspirations can come together in space." The late Carl Sagan wrote in his 1980 book "Cosmos" that "in the last few millennia we have made the most astonishing and unexpected discoveries about the Cosmos and our place within it, explorations that are exhilarating to consider. They remind us that humans have evolved to wonder, that understanding is a joy, that knowledge is a prerequisite to survival." The loss of the Columbia crew reminds us that advancing the frontiers of knowledge and understanding in space is not routine and that wonder does not come without risk. The lives of the Columbia crew, however, are testament to the dream of 'getting it right' in space. In memory of Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool and Ilan Ramon. Peace. Shalom. John S. McClenahen is an IW senior editor. He is based in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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