Looking back at a local, international tragedy

Amarillo is going to spend the next few days looking back at an event that touched many residents here deeply, while also bringing tears to many others around the world.

It was a decade ago, on Feb. 1, 2003, that the space shuttle Columbia broke apart in the sky over Texas as it hurtled back to Earth after a 16-day mission. Rick Husband, an Amarillo native, was at the stick when tragedy struck. He and his six space-traveling colleagues perished at that moment. And the image of Columbia’s shattered pieces glowing in the sky en route to Florida are stuck forever in our minds.

Husband never left home, even though he and his family had moved to Houston, where he trained to fly into space. He came back often to visit his family and his wife Evelyn’s family. He is buried at Llano Cemetery. Husband was tied inextricably to this community.

But the tragedy that struck at the world’s heart a decade ago brings to mind two matters that have gone largely unnoticed in recent times … at least in my view.

One is that human beings are meant to explore space and the nation should recommit to a robust manned space program. NASA has what’s left of the shuttle fleet and as of this moment, American astronauts are hitching rides into orbit aboard Russian rockets. Imagine that: We’re now passengers on spaceships launched by a nation with which we had this intense competition to be the first to land on the moon. Americans got there first – and the Russians have yet to do so.

The second is that space travel never has been, nor ever will be, a “routine” endeavor. It’s like the so-called “routine traffic stop” that police officers perform daily. Every cop on the beat will tell you that something can go terribly wrong during one of those stops. Occasionally it does. The same can be said of space travel.

The mission Husband and his crew carried out was done under the immense threat of something going terribly wrong. They didn’t expect disaster to strike, but on that day it did. A piece of debris that flew off the shuttle hit the leading edge of one of its wings, damaging it and exposing it to the hyper-intense heat of atmospheric re-entry.

The result broke our hearts.

As President Kennedy said in 1961 while committing the nation to landing on the moon, “We don’t do these things because they are easy, we do them because they are hard.”

Space travel is hard, no matter if it’s to another celestial body or circling this planet. It’s dangerous and it is fraught with deadly peril.

But it’s something we must do.

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