I think I remember the Challenger disaster. I was at my grandparents’ house, watching the launch – or maybe it was the news afterwards – and while I was too young to quite process what was happening, the image is indelible, the way the explosion split in two. It was one of those moments, as a child, when you realise the world isn’t as safe as you thought it was. This was just two years before the Lockerbie bombing, another event I remember vividly.
Today is NASA’s Day of Remembrance for the crews of the Challenger, Columbia and Apollo 1. It’s easy to forget, in these days of satellites and International Space Stations and sci-fi movies, that space exploration is dangerous – space is a hostile environment in its own right, and the fact that to get there means strapping people to a million pounds of rocket fuel and firing them out of our atmosphere. The space programme, so the common refrain goes, got boring, and in that moment of epic trivialisation, we forgot the heroism of those who travel into space in the name of exploration.
I’m a fan of the space programme. I hope, perhaps vainly, that one day a native of Earth will walk upon Mars. But let’s never forget, in that rush for adventure and discovery, that all this results in sacrifice – of time, of resources – and sometimes, tragically, of life.
We don’t really remember the names of those who sailed and died with Columbus or Cook as they made their voyages of discovery. We don’t have to make the same mistake with those who died as part of the space programme. So, tonight, I’ll take a moment to look out of my window at the stars and not take them, and all we know of them, for granted.