At any given moment, most of us couldn't say if there is a space trip in progress or who's manning the international space station and what are they doing up there. We forget how extraordinary this all is.
Years ago, everybody stopped whatever they were doing to marvel every time a person went into space. Everybody knew the name of each astronaut. I know it's natural for us to be less excited about what they just did than we would have been years ago, but it's not their fault they weren't born 60 or 70 years ago. And it doesn't make them less heroic.
Maybe you feel space travel is a foolish way to spend money. Maybe you feel it shouldn't be a priority. Maybe you're right. But don't blame the astronauts. They don't set policy. They just do things that most of us wouldn't consider doing for a second.
President Bush praised them as "risk-takers," and that was putting it mildly. Think about them in comparison to the rest of the population. We order salad dressing on the side, we're afraid to drive with less than half a tank of gas, and our doors are triple-locked at night. Meanwhile these brave people were hurtling through space at speeds thousands of times greater than a 16-year-old with a new license.
Shortly after takeoff, the world and the astronauts were told that their spacecraft might have a problem similar to the ill-fated Columbia. This was like being on a plane and hearing the pilot say, "This turbulence might not be minor. It could lead to a disaster. But just act normal." And the amazing thing is they did just act normal. Better than normal. In an unprecedented move, they fixed the craft.
The astronauts shouldn't be admired just because of the physical risks they're willing to take. They put up with all kinds of things the average citizen wouldn't go for. We complain about a long five-hour flight. It takes them days to fly to the space station. When astronauts eventually fly to Mars — which they will probably do in a few years — the flight will take six months each way. Six months without stretching your legs outside or breathing fresh air. Six months of not using a regular bathroom. Six months of being stuck with people you work with 24 hours a day, seven days a week.