On January 18, 1803, President Thomas Jefferson secretly asked Congress to fund the American government's first official exploration of territories "unknown." Jefferson requested an appropriation of $2,500 to fund what would become the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Two hundred years later, exploration and discovery remain a living part of the American identity. The explosion of the shuttle Columbia over the Texas skies reminds us of that. It reminds of us what we take for granted — the costs and risks of finding the new, the courage of the explorers.
When the space shuttle Challenger exploded before the nation on January 28, 1986, President Reagan consoled the nation by invoking that spirit of discovery. "We've grown used to wonders in this century; it's hard to dazzle us," he said. "We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers."
Judging from what the visitors to the CBSNews.com bulletin boards had to say in reaction to the loss of the shuttle Columbia, that pioneer spirit is alive and kicking.
By far the most common sentiment our writers expressed is that the space program ought to go on, despite the losses. Amidst the conspiracy theories, political rants and finger pointing, that message stood out.
"It's a tragedy, but the crew certainly believed that what they were doing was worthwhile, wrote Brian Hass, "And, I think space flight is still important. The program does need to go on."
"As for the program," wrote Ntennguy, "let's hold our memorials, our commissions, find the problem, fix the problem, and move on. The heroes of Columbia and Challenger would have wanted the program to proceed at all speed."
"My sincerest hope is that their sacrifice today won't be wasted by us not moving on with the space program," Laetus posted. "Let's find out what went wrong and, as the NASA captain said, fix it and move on with the greatest adventure ever for mankind, the exploration of space."
That said, many of those who wrote in expressed a deep sense of pessimism — of "why us?" I don't think this worried feeling was quite in the same in 1986, when the Challenger was lost. Reaction to Columbia is profoundly colored by 9/11.
"In the last year or so we've had our share of heroes," wrote Pamelaa. "We mourn and we feel the great loss."
"As if we didn't have enough to deal with, our hearts are wrenched once more," Dinah said in her post. "Our mortality has again been made very evident."
According to Jcravens, "Just as it seems the country is moving towards recovery of 9/11, something like this happens and all the feelings of the last year are brought up again."
"My children are young!" wrote Alwaysremember. "Yet they were watching in horror as the World Trade Center went down killing many — and now this another space shuttle gone!"
JenniferEagan wrote, "Wives lost husbands, ten children lost their parents, and parents lost their children. Seven people isn't that many, when compared to 9/11, but to those that loved them, each one was the world."
John Logsdon, a scholar who has followed America's space program for decades, told CBS News , "I believe that the value of what we do with people in space is in so many ways [and] dimensions part of this society that I can't conceive of — even in the face of this kind of tragic accident — saying no more, we're not going to go."
"We want role models," Losgsdon said. "We want people to identify with, we want the best of American society. We need symbols."
The image of the Columbia tearing the clear blue sky on a Saturday morning is now one of our symbols. But is it a symbol of frailty or strength?
Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is Editorial Director of CBSNews.com based in Washington.
E-mail questions, comments, complaints and ideas to
Against the Grain
By Dick Meyer
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.