Remember the Columbia 7

On the morning we lost Columbia seven years ago today, I was up early and in good spirits. The orbiter was headed home after two and a half week stint in space. I was was doing double duty at CNN that morning – as Columbia happened to be coming home during my shift as the co-anchor of the weekend morning program.

I was on top of the world because I had every reason to believe I would soon be orbiting above it. After years of negotiating with NASA (and the Russians), we were poised to announce that I would become the first journalist to fly on the space shuttle to the International Space Station.

My family and I were Houston bound. And I was about to embark on unprecedented journalistic adventure. It was the ultimate embed assignment.

It was a crystal clear cloudless morning across the entire continental US – and Columbia was going to streak across the country – coast to coast in a matter of minutes.

I mentioned this to the assignment and affiliate desks and told them to notify TV stations beneath the flight path to see if they might get some pictures of this man-made meteor. Fortunately, WFAA in Dallas thought it would be worth the effort to field a crew.

Columbia was due to land in the 9 a.m. hour. My anchor shift began at 7, so I got busy telling people the news of the day. Bush had delivered his State of the Union speech the previous Tuesday where he laid out his (specious) rationale for an invasion of Iraq. We were gearing up for war and our rundown that morning reflected that fact. I did an interview with Janeane Garofalo – who was railing against the impending war. Too bad we didn’t listen.

All the while, I was watching NASA’s TV feed out of the corner of my eye on a separate monitor. Co-anchor Heidi Collins and I were breaking in a new “living room” style set that morning, so I did not have the ability to listen in on radio communications as I could at the traditional anchor desk

So in order to stay abreast of the re-entry, I picked up my cell phone and dialed into the NASA’s dedicated line that carries mission audio and commentary. All seemed “nominal” (as they say in Mission Control) until Columbia was above them over Texas. Suddenly there was no communication with the orbiter. Not a good thing – but not on the face of it the proverbial Bad Day I always dreaded.

But of course it was. And when the time came for landing and there were no sonic booms – andColumbia did not appear – there was no doubt it was a very Bad Day indeed. A space shuttle orbiter is nothing more than a sophisticated glider as it comes home. The landing time is about as accurate as an atomic clock. No holding patternsor go-arounds in this racket. So when a shuttle does not arrive on time, there really is not a benign (much less survivable) alternative outcome.

I knew this instantly, and it simply took my breath away. I told our audience only that there was a problem with the shuttle and we were watching it ever so closely. We tossed to a break and I was told to leave the living room set – and make my way to the place we called the “Big Board” which was rigged with a giant plasma screen and and telestrator. It was a standing set – and I would be there for the next 16 hours leading viewers through a national tragedy.

While I was making that move, I started heaving with emotion. The loss was overwhelming. I thought of my lost friends on the shuttle, the terror that they must be feeling in mission control and the horror and sadness that must have been gripping the space program. It is journalistically impolitic to say this, but after all those years, I was a part of the family.

And indeed, I was just about to take a step even further into the fold. And I knew my dream was over as well. But I realized this was no time for emotion. I had the job ahead that I had been in training for my entire career. I consciously told myself to put the emotion on the shelf. That night, when I finally got off the air – got in the air – and found myself in a Houston hotel, I cried myself to sleep. It was a devastating loss on so many levels.

Today I got up early as well. But no high spirits this morning. My thoughts are with the families of those who were lost on Columbia – especially the children who no doubt have fading memories of their fathers or mother. I still grieve for them and for my NASA family.

And as it happens on this day, NASA will tell us what is ahead for the US space program. You can watch more about this on our most recent edition of our webcast “This Week In Space.” The shuttle program will not get a reprieve from the President. The end game set in motion by Bush one year after the loss of Columbia will march on. The shuttle days are numbered. Only 5 missions remain and it will likely all be over this time next year.

NASA will get more money – good news in a tough fiscal environment. But not nearly enough to fund the audacious – yet nostalgic – Moon program Bush envisioned. So today, we will hear it is all being scrapped. NASA will spend the money that is freed up to bolster efforts to study our own planet and its climate, for aeronautics and to keep the International Space Station in business until at least 2020.

There will be money spent to seed a more robust private, commercial space industry and to devise new propulsion systems that will make a trip to Mars faster – and thus more plausible. The idea of developing a plasma propulsion system to take humans exploring deeper into the solar system is enough to get most space cadets pretty jazzed. So it is good news that there will be more money spent here. Bring it on.

That there will be no trips back to the Moon does not bother me that much. JFK famously said “We choose to go to the Moon because it is hard…” Well, frankly, for us, the Moon is not so hard. We know how to do it. I have never heard a really compelling reason to return (including the prospect of mining Helium-3). What is hard is devising a piloted trip to Mars, one of its moons or an asteroid. No one has done that. And that’s what leaders are supposed to do.

But today we will hear no real specifics on where we are headed or how we are going to get there. It makes me nervous. Are we on the brink of something exciting in space? Or is this the end of the beginning? If history is our guide, I fear the answer is “yes” to the latter.

In hindsight, it is safe to say we have missed many opportunities make a real plan for what should happen in the post-shuttle years. And yet politics always got in the way. If only we had the courage and conviction to dream big and then execute the plan…

Space cannot be planned in two or four-year cycles. Let’s hope this time, we take the long view – aim for the stars – and follow through.

We owe the crew of Columbia nothing less than that.