What was lost over the Southwestern skies was the grandest visible expression of the best within us.
The ground of east Texas trembled with the horror overhead. The shock waves spread as the worst fears were confirmed: space shuttle Columbia had turned from a high-precision machine into a lifeless meteor, its crew lost. Americans were hit with a degree of shock not equaled since September 11.
But why such shock? It wasn't the death toll: instantly, a potentially far more deadly war in Iraq was forgotten like yesterday's weather. Nor is it just that astronauts are an especially fine group of educated, hard-working scientists--before Saturday, no one cared enough even to know their names. Nor is it simply that Americans had forgotten the risks inherent in space flight: no one expects automobile or plane crashes, but even multi-fatality accidents do not traumatize the nation.
Only something that struck uniquely close to the American soul could have caused the degree of shock and horror with which we have responded to the Columbia disaster.
Pundits and scholars have long debated whether America is, at root, a religious or a secular culture. In a sense, both are right. Americans have a deeper sense of the profound--that passionate commitment to the ideal, which is too often considered the exclusive domain of religion--than do citizens of other Western nations. Americans invest the secular world of life and happiness here on Earth with the same reverence once thought appropriate to the worship of a superhuman creator. And, whereas worship of divinity called for humility and faith, the American worship of life calls for pride and the rational, scientific study of nature.
The space program is the condensed essence of this American soul. While most cultures through history have gazed with uncomprehending awe at the vast mysteries of space, NASA brings one mystery after another into the realm of human understanding. While others see only an impossibly long list of insurmountable problems, NASA solves them, one by one. While others dwell in humility at man's smallness in the face of the universe, NASA proudly extends our command of that universe. While others see heavens filled with jealous gods, NASA sees a source of solutions to earthly problems.
What was lost over the Southwestern skies was more than a single vehicle and its crew, more than a handful of scientific experiments. It was the grandest visible expression of the best within us: the intensely purposeful, heroically disciplined application of the rational mind in the service of man's life.
To appreciate the deepest meaning of the space program, one need not support any particular approach to space exploration--such as the choice of manned versus unmanned flights, nor even the existence of NASA itself: one can argue that space exploration should be run by private companies. But the memory of the fallen astronauts requires of us to remember, and revere, the spirit of Columbia, which is the essence of human greatness.
Robert Garmong, PhD in philosophy, was a writer for the Ayn Rand Institute from 2003 to 2004. The Institute promotes Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand--author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead.