February 15, 2003


Sometimes, even when you are very young, something happens in your life that is so profound, so astonishing and so big that you just know everything has changed and you will never be who you were again. I had one such experience at age 5, and I was to have another eleven years later.

I grew up in Bermuda. My father was a hotel manager, so I grew up in the most perfect corner of Bermuda. I would go to Warwick Academy and sing God Save the Queen in my blazer and school tie. Usually we'd take the bus home, but when mom picked us up, we'd wriggle into bathing suits in the back seat and go snorkeling for a few hours. This was pretty much every day. And, like just about everyone else at that age, at that time, I had decided that my future would consist of being a railroad engineer, or a fireman, or a cowboy ' that would be a Daniel Boone, coonskin cap, Winchester rifle and buckskin kind of cowboy, not the garden-variety pretty-boy kind with the chaps and the showy chrome six-shooters. I considered them a little too precious for real work, even at that age.

I didn't know it then, but I would have traded all of that for a father with a nine-to-five job selling insurance, because the price of such a life was a dad who lived his job. Most dads lived their jobs in those days. It's just that mine had a full day of work to do, and then a full night of entertaining as well.

So I was just happy to be spending time with my dad as we sat in the bleachers at Kindley Air Force Base, down at the other end of the island. A two hour wait in the sun is interminable at that age, but finally, six men in blue jumpsuits appeared, and walked down the flight line like robots. People applauded politely. I did too. Didn't seem worth a two-hour wait, though'

They climbed into their silver jets with the red, white and blue stripes and the numbers on the tails. I found out later that they were F-100 Super Sabers ' really glorious airplanes, sleek and muscular. Down came the canopies in unison. Then they started the engines.


They taxied to the end of the runway, took off in a roar, and disappeared out over the turquoise and green reefs. Spectacular! Great show! Not sure it was worth two hours, and that one guy down there won't stop talking'

Launched on May 25th, 1953'powerful symbol of the American Indian'never missed a show due to maintenance problems, blah blah blah...

Hey, thought the five-year-old, the jets are gone, show's over, let's get out of the heat...

But behind my back were six of America's most powerful fighter aircraft and the best pilots on the planet, not a hundred feet above the water and racing toward the rear of our bleachers at nearly seven hundred miles an hour ' just under the speed of sound. And I mean just under.

So when I looked down at this man in the blue jumpsuit, I couldn't hear them coming, because they were only a few feet behind their own roar. And when he said, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States Air Force---' something caught my eye at what seemed like a few feet above my head. I saw a blur of silver and red, white and blue, and that's about all I had time for, because the man shouted into his microphone the word '---THUNDERBIRDS!" and that's when the sound hit.

And that was about all she wrote for little Billy. I was pretty much done after that.

I've thought a lot about courage in the last few years. And what I've come to realize is that behind courage is a greater emotion still, and that emotion, not surprisingly, is love.

Think about it. Think of the infantryman who throws himself onto a hand grenade. Perhaps love of country brought him to that time and place. Certainly he loved his family, his wife and children. And more than that, even, he loved his own life, his chance to watch his sons grow into honorable manhood, to give his daughter away in a small church on a Sunday morning. All of this love may have given him the courage to come to the place where he would face that grenade, but it was his love of his buddies that overcame all of that in that one instant where the heart rules the mind and courage rises unbidden from its mysterious, deep harbor.

Actions like these, time and time again, leave me speechless and dumbfounded. And yet they are commonplace in times of great peril. I have sat in silent awe of the firemen that rushed into those buildings ' and of all the firemen, everywhere, that do it every day. I think of passengers on an airliner who would, in that one moment of desperate courage, decide on the spot to fight hardened murderers who had spiritually and psychologically prepared themselves for years, to advance on their slashing box cutters, to break into the cockpit and push those controls forward, to stop the men from righting the plane, kicking and biting and punching as the ground filled the windows. I think of that kind of courage and am struck mute at the love those people bore for the rest of us. I gape in awe, like I did that day when I was a little boy, at the kind of society that can generate that common courage.

And in this imperfect, flawed nation of ours, perhaps more than anywhere else on earth, I think about the courage it takes to be poor, to face that sickening knot of worry and despair that comes with not having the money to pay your bills. For there is no more steady and enduring courage than that of a poor family, especially a single parent, who fights a never-ending battle of brutal hours at miserable pay, of perennially unrealized dreams, and of the desperate, numb agony of disappointed children. For people like that, who force themselves to work two jobs while we sleep, to avoid the temptations of crime and dependency while surrounded by luxury and wealth the likes of which man has never known'well, that is dogged courage of a sublime nature that passes all understanding.

If courage is love coming to the rescue, then what do we make of people who willingly put themselves in great danger? How are astronauts any different than bungee jumpers or other thrill seekers? Are men and women like that simply adrenaline junkies, people who do not feel really alive unless they face danger and death at point-blank range? Do they indeed flirt with death? Because if they do, then that is not courage but rather a dark and filthy addiction. What kind of people do these things, and why?

If we really want to get to the heart and truth of the matter, we must turn once again to Hollywood ' for they, as usual, have gotten it absolutely, totally wrong.

For as is typical for so many who write about the military, Hollywood looks at courage and sees only bravado. Bravado is to real courage as a slick personality is to genuine character.

You do not earn the privilege of flying these amazing machines because of lightning-fast reflexes or a cocky smile, or even a best-who-ever-lived belief in your own ability. Everyone who applies has these in spades. You get to fly jets, or Space Shuttles, because you have the discipline to study phone book after phone book of manuals and procedures. It is unglamorous, tedious, vexing work. There are armies of young men and women willing to do this, who fling themselves into jungles of facts and data for the chance to sit in that chair and face death on a daily basis.

I know this because I was one of them. And then, eleven years after six red, white and blue Super Sabers changed my life, after building every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo model in the known universe, after memorizing the details of every aircraft in the US and Soviet inventory, after getting a job at the Miami Space Transit Planetarium at age 13, after correcting the tour bus guides at the Kennedy Space Center (I wanted to be shot into space, and they wanted the same, only without the capsule), after leaving any hope of a social life at the altar of after-school physics classes, after lining up letters to Senators and enduring High School Counselors who told me 6'1' would make a pretty good basketball player, after all this and more than you can imagine, I walked out of the preliminary medical exam for the United States Air Force Academy with an optical prescription for the 20/25 vision in my left eye (20/10 in my right being irrelevant) and the inescapable reality that someone else was going to command the first Mars Mission.

That was a hard thing to do to a seventeen year old, and to this day I look at our military pilots and I am ashamed of myself. I know there's no reason or logic to it; it's just how I feel. Still. To this day.

The Space Shuttle is, without question, the most complex machine ever created. You look at her and see an airplane. Look deeper.

Look at her bones; her wing spars, her bulkheads and decks. Look at her delicate hydraulic blood vessels, her electrical nervous system, her computer brains and inner ear, her exquisite balancing organs. Look at the warm cocoon behind her nose, a little piece of Planet Earth set in a fortress against the vacuum and bitter cold of space. Think of her communications suite, her inertial guidance systems, her orbital maneuvering thrusters, her elevons and landing gear and rudder. Picture the slightest pressure on a man or woman's wrist sending her rolling or pitching to a fraction of a degree. Think of her eyes, her windows ' windows that can hold back 2000 degree-hot plasma. Think of her revolutionary, reusable rocket motors. Think of her thermal tiles, so efficient at dissipating heat that you can hold a white-hot tile in the palm of your hand. Think of the thousands of them that make up her skin, each unique ' every one.

We don't call industrial-sized air conditioning units 'she.' Well, most of us don't anyway. We don't refer to buildings this way very often, or to generators or dumpsters.

But vehicles, they are different somehow. If you do not believe it is possible to love an inanimate object, then you do not know too many teenage boys and their first cars. Ships have always been she. Airplanes, too. And I don't think this is so hard to figure out, because there is something about a machine that takes us places, something alive and magical. Many foreign observers of America simply cannot comprehend our love of automobiles, but that is because they have never had to face crossing Texas. There is a rite of passage for everyone in the US, and that is your first teenage road trip. And no matter what kind of piece of crap you may be driving when you take that trip, that machine is serving you up pure, unrefined freedom and it's so delirious and liberating that it makes your head spin, and carves the songs you heard during those glorious hours into that part of your brain that makes you cry when you hear them again twenty and forty and sixty years later.

A guy on a Harley knows real freedom in the single, left and right direction of the highway. Sailors know it in two dimensions, the ability to point the bow anywhere on the compass and follow it, come what may.

And then there are those of us who have worked and studied and trained like hell so that we may know freedom in all three dimensions. Now a lot of people think this makes pilots a little arrogant and aloof. Not so. The average pilot, despite the sometimes swaggering exterior, is very much capable of such feelings as love, affection, intimacy and caring. It's just that these feelings don't involve anyone else.

I knew, when I was sitting in those bleachers all those years ago, that those red, white and blue jets were alive. I always see airplanes that way. They live. They are here to set us free. And the most docile and sweet-natured of them can only just barely kill us.

Like most every pilot I know, I read everything I can about other people exactly like me who have managed to kill themselves in an airplane. Our crusty old flight instructors always said to us new pilots, 'Try to learn from the mistakes of others, son ' you won't live long enough to make them all yourself.'

Again, like most every pilot I know, I have lost friends to the airplanes I so deeply love. No one very close yet, but that's just a matter of time. It's going to happen. 'When a friend dies, you lose a friend; when you die, you lose all your friends.' We say things like this when we start talking about our dead comrades. We say it to deflect the reality of it, of course, but what we really do is dig into the details of every fatal accident. Ah, see ' I wouldn't have done THAT. You feel better. Some of the things pilots do to get themselves killed are truly and staggeringly stupid, so much so you really do tend to look at it as natural selection. But if we're honest, we often see ourselves in the wreckage, catch a glimpse of something we almost did or might have done, or did, in fact, survive.

Like every pilot I know, I read these accident reports relentlessly, and for the same reason: to save myself from making that same mistake. And it works, too. And it does something more: it makes you face the possibility, the very idea of dying. Realistically and openly. You are making a trade with death ' I'll deal with the horror in exchange for the wisdom.

I like to fly because it combines intelligence, ingenuity, passion, skill, discipline and guts. We do not flirt with danger. We try to get as far away from danger as we can. We look at the death of our friends and colleagues right in the eye so we know what it looks like when it comes for us. This is not a love or a fear of dying. This is confronting the fact that death is in fact real, and by doing so, by facing that, you do, indeed, develop courage.

Courage is not the absence of fear. It is taking action in the face of fear.

And I know courage is the stern face of love because I love to fly more than I fear being killed while flying. I do everything I possibly can to reduce the risks, knowing I can never eliminate them all. There comes a time when I can honestly tell myself I've been as careful as I know how to be, and then, and only then, is the time to strap in. I've made the risks and the fear as small as I can. The joy stays as large as it ever was.

One day, I was on a solo flight in a small, single-seat sailplane ' a glider about the size of a bathtub, with long, thin, very efficient wings.

It's usually dry in the Mojave desert, but this was still early spring, and the San Gabriel Mountains were covered in snow. Wind hitting the mountains has nowhere to go but up, and so that's where I was ' 80 knots, plenty of speed to get out of trouble ' and perhaps two wingspans away from the trees. I was so close I could see squirrel tracks in the snow. Just thinking about a turn was all it took, and I ran the contours of those mountains certain that I would never have to come down.

And then I saw something I have never seen before or since. Off my left wing, between me and the mountains, moist air was being pushed up so fast that it was condensing, turning into cloud before my eyes. It was like an inverted waterfall of smoke, and there I was, dipping a wing into it. The power of all that lift, the force and the speed of it, all that free energy ' and somehow, we hairless, gibbering, bickering monkeys managed to figure out a way to grab it and ride it. I remember thinking, Four billion years of struggle and evolution put me in this seat right now. Billions of dead people spent their lives dreaming of what this must be like.

And as I looked away from that upward rushing waterfall of air, I saw ahead of me another sight I had never seen before or since, for the sun was setting below a cloud layer, yet above a lower one, and there we were, just me and Apollo himself -' caught in an envelope of purple and gold glory that would make the most heavenly Hallmark card look like something done on an Etch-A-Sketch.

And I will never forget this feeling: I knew, right then, as if I had been hit between the eyes with a diamond bullet, that I no longer cared about dying. I had seen and done something that only the smallest handful of us have ever experienced, sailed a silent ship through a place that cannot be described or imagined. I didn't care if the wings came off. I didn't care if I got pushed through the grille of an oncoming truck on the way home down murderous highway 138. It just didn't matter to me anymore. I had done this. Anything that followed in this life was gravy, and I knew it as surely as if the thought had been with me all my life.

I wouldn't have traded that moment for the moon.

Of course, the risks we private pilots face pales in comparison to our military fliers, and is absolutely nothing compared to that met eye-to-eye by men and women like Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon; nor does it require the courage and skill of Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis or Judy Resnik. These are the last crews of Columbia, and Challenger before her, buried with their ships in the skies over Florida and Texas. But many, many others have taken that walk in those spacesuits, smiling and waving as they pass the cameras on their way to their seats atop 2 million pounds of explosives, and they took exactly the same risks and bore them with the same courage. It is fitting that we remember the names of those lost with their ships, but not fitting at all that most of us cannot name a single living crewmember, some of whom have taken that walk four or five times.

Story Musgrave was one of those people. He described the Space Shuttle as "a beautiful butterfly that's bolted to a bullet."

Here's what he meant:

Your chairs are facing the sky as you crawl into the Orbiter. You can barely move anyway in your orange pressure suits ' thank god for the technicians. They literally ratchet the five-point harness across your chest and legs. On a full flight, it's four on the flight deck: Pilot and Mission Commander on the controls up front. Two behind him, three on the deck below.

You sit for hours like this ' minimum of three hours or so, often longer. There is a lot to think about, and I have no doubt that since Challenger rose and then fell on that cold January morning not one of them has been able to avoid seeing in their mind's eye that horrible forked smoke trail and raining, smoldering debris. No one talks about this. No one has to. There's a lot of smiling and nodding, but the chatter is kept to a minimum since the intercom is dominated by call-outs from launch control to the crew, most often the Mission Commander and Pilot.

There's a lot of built-in holds, chances to catch up and work minor, last minute problems. At the T-21 minute hold, the Flight Director polls the Launch Control Team to confirm we are go for launch. This is a solemn moment. It is, in essence, the passing of a cup of responsibility. Everybody takes a sip. It's a little less dramatic than in the Apollo days (Telemetry? GO! Cap COM? GO! Booster? GO FLIGHT!), but it's still where we sign the check.

They pick up the countdown. There's another built-in hold at T-9 minutes. Any one of these can, and very often does, result in catching one or more of the one million components falling out of nominal status. That's either more delay strapped into your chair, or a trip home for the night, or the week, or the month.

T minus 31 seconds -- OBS takes over, with auto-sequence start at T-28. Software is running the countdown from this point forward, but anyone at any console can stop the launch if they are not happy.

Computers are checking each system twenty-five times a second. The crew hears everything. Pilot and Mission Commander are busy as hell, but the other five are essentially passengers, and now they are scared. Now they are calling on all of their courage, reasoning with themselves. Smiling at each other. That helps a lot. That and The Nod. The Nod is untranslatable. It means, very roughly, that I know what you went through to sit here with me, and you know the same about me. It's not something you and I can do. This is something reserved for the very best people we have as a species. That inner voice, the one we cultivate and nurture through untold hours of training and simulation, whispers to us, pushing out the fear: Those controllers are the best there are. The engineers too. The technicians. All of them. We don't know if they can keep us safe but we know they've done their best, and that's as good as it gets.

Ten, nine, eight'

Okay, head back. Here we go. On the flight deck, some orange gantry out the left window ' everything else is blue sky. A butterfly bolted to a bullet.

At T-6 seconds, fire-hoses of fuel and liquid oxygen begin to flow to the three main engines at the back of the Shuttle. They only give us about a quarter of the thrust we'll need to get off the pad. But they're on fire now, pushing the Orbiter forward, giving the crew the sickening feeling that the ship is falling over. The vanes constrict and focus the thrust ' we're going to need it all now. Everything she's got.

Come on, baby. Come on.

The entire shuttle assembly rocks back into place now, and even during these last five seconds, computers can catch a stray reading and shut it all down'

Three, two, one'

SRB ignition. The two flanking Solid Rocket Boosters ignite, pitching more than a million pounds more thrust onto the orange External Tank, the bullet that the butterfly rides into orbit.

And now you're headed for space, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.

The SRB's kick in, and that is what it is, a hammer to the back. You were scared before; you're terrified now. The SRB's are horrible, they're pigs, they scrape and hiss and rattle and they feel like they will shake that ship to pieces. Look at the cockpit cameras during launch, and you'll see the crew battered like they're taking speed bumps at two hundred miles an hour. Everyone hates and fears the SRB's; you'll never relax while they're burning.

15 seconds in and you're clear of the tower. The Shuttle rolls 90 degrees left, fast. You're not only on your back now, you're tipping over upside-down and it's getting worse as you angle out over the Atlantic.

A few miles away stand the smartest men and women the human race has ever produced, and they are watching over you like a hawk. There's just so goddam little they can do for you now. They've already done everything they can and they're as much a passenger as you are.

You are probably too scared to think about it, and it is CERTAINLY too loud to hear, but further away, thousands and thousands more watch the glare as the SRB's light. The Shuttle rolls off the pad in complete silence at that distance. It's surreal. There's nothing to compare it to. People are usually kind of quiet.

Then the sound hits you: you feel it in your chest more than hear it, the sound of millions of pieces of thick canvas being torn all at once. And then a funny thing happens, because you're surrounded by people but suddenly you're all alone out there ' sunburn forgotten, mosquitoes a memory from a past life. You're ten or fifteen or twenty miles away, but it's just you and the white butterfly now, that's all there is. You're crying and you don't know it, you're screaming but you can't hear it, you're jumping up and down, and it's every time a Gator wide receiver ever beat a Florida State defensive end and he's just pulling away and ain't nothin' gonna stop him now ' he's going all the way.

Go, baby! Go! GO! Go you son of a bitch! Yeah, they say she burns liquid hydrogen and LOX, but that's just camouflage. It's pure love that keeps that ship in the sky.

And she is going. She's going like a bat out of hell. And every traffic jam and dental appointment and blind date and income tax form is suddenly worth it to be able to see this with your own eyes, to live through a time like this. It's a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke, but it's not God coming down to speak to us, it's us going up to have a word with Him. Good GOD look at her go!

40 seconds. The mains throttle back. Nothing stops the goddam solids: they keep roaring and hissing and knocking loose your fillings if you're dumb enough or human enough to keep your teeth clenched. We're at Max Q, and the Shuttle is experiencing the highest aerodynamic loads it can bear. We keep getting faster, but the air starts to thin. This is as hard as the air can push back, and if we do it at full power we'll be blown to pieces.

Fifty years ago it took all the Right Stuff we had in the box to push a tiny orange glider level through the sound barrier. Now we do it in less than a minute, straight up, from a standing start, with a spacecraft the size of a ten story building weighing a few million pounds. Ka-BOOOM! Mach 1, baby, and you ain't seen nothin' yet!

A little more than a minute and most of the atmosphere is behind us. Main engines back up to 104%

"Challenger GO at throttle-up'"

73 seconds.

'Oh no''

That's as far as Challenger got that cold January morning. 73 seconds. End of story.

'Roger Columbia, we copy you go at throttle-up'

I know how they must have felt at 2:02 ' a kick and a pop, and all of a sudden, the ride turns to pure velvet as the SRB's fall away. I know one of them must have looked at another and smiled. We're safe now.

Well, safer. Now a complete engine failure could result in a return glide to Kennedy. Forget all that nonsense about parachutes and escape poles. At mach 5 and climbing the air is as hard as concrete.

2:32 ' we've been in the air for two and a half minutes, and we are high and fast enough now to glide to Africa.

4:20 ' Two engine Abort to Orbit ' if we lose a main engine now, the other two will get us to orbit. We can sort things out up there.

7:00 ' One engine ATO. Even better. We're gonna make it.

7 minutes, 45 seconds. MECO. Main Engine Cut Off. Welcome to by-God outer space! Everything is strapped down except your arms. They float in front of you like they do at the top of a roller coaster. Only this one is going to last for two weeks. You're weightless.

A few moments later the External Tank falls away, headed for the Indian Ocean. That funny dark spot is where some of the insulating foam came off during launch. It's happened before. Probably nothing to worry about'

Back during the Apollo days, before we forgot that we could accomplish anything we set our minds to, the Space Shuttle was going to be a different bird indeed. Not a butterfly strapped to a bullet at all, but more a hawk on the back of an eagle.

No SRB's, no O-rings, no foam insulation, no External Tank falling away into the ocean half a world away. No, the original plans for the Shuttle called for something that would have looked a bit like those pictures you've seen of the Orbiter riding on the back of a 747, as it's moved from Edwards Air Force Base back to Florida.

Almost all of the weight lifting off that pad is fuel. Why? Because it takes insane amounts of thrust to go straight up. The engines on a 747 don't lift us into the air ' the wings do that. All the engines do is keep the aircraft moving forward fast enough for lift to develop, and it takes a lot less energy to go forward than it does to go up.

In the original design, an orbiter sat on the back of a manned, winged transport. The shuttle would take off from a runway ' any major airport would do ' climb to about 100,000 feet using jet engines, and let aerodynamics do the heavy lifting just as it does on a jumbo jet today. Then, already moving at several times the speed of sound and with 95% of the atmosphere below it, the Orbiter would separate and using a scramjet ' supersonic ramjet ' claw for more speed and altitude until there was practically no air left at all. The front of the scramjet would close, making it into a rocket, and liquid oxygen would be added to the fuel. Although you wouldn't need too much ' you were most of the way there already.

This was an elegant, reliable and very safe way to get to orbit. Once built, it would have gotten the cost of going into space down to rates that approached flying the Concorde. But to build it was expensive, and after Apollo 11, we had bigger fish to fry.

No one has been able to tell me what those fish were.

Anyway, never time or money to do things right, but always the time and money to do them over. And over.

Solid Rocket Boosters and foam-covered External Tanks were engineering sleight-of-hand tricks to get us to space on far less money than we needed to do it right. It was like making a lunar lander out of old boilers and playground equipment. To the extent that the Shuttle has flown 111 out 113 missions successfully is a testament to the skill and dedication of NASA's engineers and administrators, and not, I'm afraid, to the vision or commitment of the Congress, the President or the American People.

Look at the pictures of Columbia after a landing at Kennedy, and you are struck by just how dirty she was by the time of her last mission. Well, she was 22 years old ' that's old for titanium and steel that's been shaken and burned and twisted and rattled, freezing on one side and boiling on the other during her weeks and weeks in the unforgiving vacuum a few miles above us. But it looks as though Columbia herself never failed her crew. Challenger certainly did not. It looks like components of the External Tank and SRB's did both Orbiters fatal harm. These ships were destroyed, and their crews perished, because of the various band-aids and cost-cutting work-arounds we applied to what was once a magnificent design. NASA was forced to do this to maintain our tenuous status as a spacefaring species, and I applaud and admire them for that ingenuity and courage. For all her design short-cuts, I would fly the Shuttle tomorrow. Please let me fly the Shuttle tomorrow.

The scales of Joy and Fear somehow balance. On its final mission, the Challenger Seven never got to space, and her crew died not long after she cleared the pad and climbed into memory.

But the crew of Columbia had a much larger helping of joy ' sixteen days in orbit, almost a hundred sunrises and sunsets, playing weightless choo-choo trains through narrow tunnels and tweaking gravity's tail good and long and hard ' and the Columbia Seven would be destined to pay for that by several minutes of knowing that they were about to die.

As they strapped themselves in for the long, quiet ride home, they had the satisfaction of a job so well done that NASA was calling it the textbook mission.

Rick Husband took his six crewmembers rock climbing during their years of training. He wanted to bond them into more than a crew. He did: he made them into a family. There's a picture of them in shorts and sunglasses, atop that mountain, admiring the view. They look like they'd known each other since grade school.

I'll bet they talked about that day as they pulled down their visors, and Willie McCool pitched the Orbiter on its back for the de-orbit burn. They talked about who was waiting for them, where they would go, what they would have for dinner.

As Columbia began to press against the first thin wisps of air, a little hint of gravity, a little push at the small of their backs must have felt strange after sixteen days of weightlessness. But it was time to go home. And like all coworkers facing the end of a close assignment and weeks and months of hard work together, I know they planned to get together over the years. I know Laurel and Mike were talking about their families, Dave and Kalpana already grinning about being the old salts next time and how much they would miss this team, this family, in all of their future rides on the bullet. Ilan Ramon must have invited them all to his house in Israel, perhaps a few years from now when things had settled down a little. It's beautiful there. I know that they meant it too, that these were not idle platitudes but real offers from people who knew they would be friends for the rest of their lives.

And so they were.

Perhaps ten minutes before eight am on Saturday morning, Rick Husband and Willie McCool started to pay attention to the data coming from the left wing sensors. It was 30 degrees warmer than normal in the left wheel well. Not much, considering the 2-3000 degrees on the leading edge of their wings and nose, but something to pay attention to. Anomalies are never good. There are no pleasant surprises in the flying business.

By 7:55 things were looking worse ' a lot worse. Unbenownst to the crew, telemetry beamed to the ground showed that readings from the heat sensors in the left wing started to rise, and then dropped to zero. They were failing, in a pattern expanding away from the left wheel well. Tire pressures were way high on the left side, and then those sensors failed too.

Sensors fail all the time. But this was different. This was a pattern, and it was spreading. And something was starting to pull the ship to the left.

I don't know the words he used, but I can hear the tone perfectly in my head, because it's exactly the same tone I've heard dozens of times on cockpit voice recorders. It's concern. Alarm, even. But it's cool. Disciplined.

All right, we've got a problem here...

The Pilot and Mission Commander probably never exchanged the knowing look that we'd see in the movie. They were too busy working the problem. But in the two seats behind them, and the three below, those five brave passengers looked at each other and now the smiles and the grins were gone.

Something was wrong with Columbia's left wing. The air that should be slipping over and under her like water off the back of a duck had found something to hold on to: almost certainly some missing tiles knocked loose by insulating foam coming off the External Tank. But 3000 degree ionized air was pushing into that wing, and heat sensors were winking out one by one because they were being burned through by gas far hotter and sharper than that at the end of a blowtorch.

Guys, we're in real trouble here.

The Commander would have told them. I have no doubt of this at all. You love and respect those people, people who have shown courage the likes of which we will never know. These are not babies, not shrieking, hysterical, self-centered celebrities either. These are astronauts. They deserve to know.

The air pushing backward and into that left wing continued to yaw the nose of the orbiter to the left. This cannot be allowed to happen ' the ship will disintegrate if she doesn't come in at exactly the right angle. So the computers flying Columbia commanded the aircraft to roll right, to bring that left wing forward using the rudder and elevons, the controls on the wing and tail that made Columbia an airplane and not merely a space capsule.

It wasn't working. Columbia still pulled hard to the left, so hard that the computers fired the attitude control rockets on the nose to try and force it back into the relative wind. When that happened, when they heard the roar of those rockets firing in a last desperate effort to keep that ship intact, and when the rockets fired again, and kept firing, Rick Husband and Willie McCool must have known that they were not going home that day.

Guys, it's Rick. I don't think we're gonna make it.

And I know what courage did for these people. I know they looked at each other and nodded, and whether they actually said goodbye I know it was in their eyes. We know it. We know. We saw it on the deck of the Titanic, in the aisles on United Flight 93. On some level, they had all said goodbye to their families and their lives before they walked through that circular hatch, right below the word COLUMBIA.

When PSA Flight 182 collided with a small plane over San Diego in 1978, and dove straight into the ground trailing fire from the wing, the last words on the Cockpit Voice Recorder was a calm, level, 'Ma, I love you.'

And in that last second, there may just have been enough time, as that bulkhead wall opened into golden and purple light, to smile and think, It was worth it. It was a great ride. I wouldn't have traded this for the m

Buildings shook in Texas. Columbia was coming home.

Posted by Proteus at February 15, 2003 3:18 PM

Welcome to the Eject! Eject! Eject! commenter community. Please read and understand the following:

1. This is not a public square. This is a dinner party on personal property. Good conversation is not only tolerated but celebrated here. But the host understands the difference between dissent and disrespect, even if you do not. Louts will be ignored until the bouncers can show them the door.

2. This is a voluntary online community. Your posting of any material, whether in comments or otherwise, grants to William A. Whittle, Aurora Aerospace, Inc. and their affiliates, a perpetual, royalty-free, non-exclusive, worldwide license to use, sublicense, reproduce or incorporate into other material all or any portion of the material posted, for commercial or other use.

3. If a comment does find its way into a main page essay, print, or other media, every effort will be made to credit the individual making the comment. So chose your screen name accordingly, SLNTFRT33@yahoo.com!

Now let's see some distributed intelligence and basic human decency! Don't make me come down there every five minutes!


I worked at Rocketdyne from 1986 to 1995, and it was official company policy that all work stopped for Space Shuttle launches, from Main Engine start to MECO, the TVs were on and we watched the launch.

Every one of us kept a Grade 8 sphincter lock the whole time those damn SRBs were firing........

Pardon me while I wipe my eyes.

You have written another masterpiece, Bill. And another bookmarked page goes into memory.

Well done, sir.

You should write speeches for the president. Just imagine the above essay (or any of the others) being spoken by Ronald Reagan.

Bill: All I can do is cite Drumwaster and say:
Ditto, Ditto, Ditto.

Beautiful, Bill.
Every time I read your stuff, the evil capitalist in me can't help thinking "I can't believe I'm getting writing like this for free." You need to write a book.

Thanks again Bill. Excellent as usual.


This is a wonderful essay. I would ask for one change: The paragraph probably refering to college professors (who believe in diversity as long as it doesn't include diversity of opinion):

1) Feels out of place
2) Does not give the detailed and insiteful analysis that that topic needs ( and you always provide), and therefore is kind of shallow
3) Sullies a fine eulogy to some of our best, who chose service and risk when they could have had comfort and wealth

Bill, you really hit a new high in this essay regardless of the above.


Though I don't mean to belittle any other blogs, I find yours insightful, refreshing and awesome. (Still crying, so please forgive my typos) You manage to reach down into the very core of your readers and by doing so you elevate them to a level of dignity and honor similar to that of watching the American flag pass by in a parade. I don't know you, but I would be more than proud to call you friend.

Once again, sending to all my kids.
This is what Daddy was trying to say all those years.

Man....So Clear: - Your love of the sky.

Laughter and Chills and Tears and at the end, a Quiet and Accepting Happiness.
As it's been for me with all your essays.
Yes, write a book sir. We all need and will need the spirit you bring to light.

{Postscript: - Don't change a thing!}

This brought tears to my eyes.

Absolutely beautiful.

Thank you, Bill.

This essay has begun the healing process for me. I have sat with this feeling of being incomplete for the last two weeks. I first read your essay at 3:30, and it has taken me this long to bring myself back together. Your words took me to a place I had never imagined: seeing the process from their point of view. I do not have the required referents for this vision. Again, thank you.

I would add that the courage you speak so eloquently about is not just physical courage, but also moral courage. Physical courage is often found within people; moral courage is found quite less often.

The physical courage of the astronauts and others is found in strapping the million pounds of explosives to one's back, or exiting the door of a high performance aircraft while in flight, or free diving to depths that submarines of 50 years ago could not conceive. This courage is what we often point to when illustrating what courage is, but it is the milder version.

Moral courage is the courage of the astronauts in believing in the space mission, regardless of whether they will ever be chosen to fly. It is the utter certaintude of the correctness of our belief system, that the human being can achieve anything at whatever the cost. It is the standing firm in the face of others trying to convince you that your chosen course is false and wasteful. It is standing up and saying that yes, I made a mistake and it will not occur again. It is telling your boss that the project as he envisions it is wrong and must be corrected. It is saying to the world, "Here I stand, I can do no other." And meaning it until your last breath.

I stand in awe of our explorers and all who expand our universe. They may be astronauts, divers, or scientists. It is their courage, both physical and moral, that lights our path into the future. May they ever lead, and lead well.

I, for one, stand ready to follow where ever the trail they blaze leads.

Sapper Mike

In my sordid life in academia I have met some of the sordid little people described in your essay. I have also met some of the best this species has to offer.

It's easy to distingush between the two. You can spot them as soon as you enter the lecture hall.

If you can't, ten minutes into the lecture you can. They whine and whine and whine. What ever joy that exists in their field is submerged under a stream of self-pity. Whine Whine WHINE. Us suffering [file in the blanks].

Did I mention they're moral cowards? Should have. Physical too: on flight 93 they'd be on the cell phone to their lawyer.

After the first lecture you head to the registrar's office to change your course to something else. Puh-leeze...

A feelthy, bourgoise scientist...

Sorry about that. Last line should be "A feelthy, bourgoise scientist...that's me."

BTW, the fanatsy of absolute power has always been present in academic writings. Note the concept of The Guardians in Plato's Republic.

Eloquent, heartrending, and masterful.

Oh, my. The goosebumps and catch in the throat. The feeling that I was touched by the universe the day I first saw Bill Whittle's writing. Oh, my.

And ditto with what the others said (except do NOT change a word), especially Sapper Mike.

I knew nothing of courage, because I've never been severely tested. But after reading this, I know what to aspire to if I ever am tested.

Bill - WOW. What a gift you have, and thank you for sharing it with us. It is a wonderful tribute to all those that are or have been a part of the exploration of space, not just those on the Columbia and Challenger.

I have had the good fortunate to witness a Shuttle launch from the KSC visitors' center, only 3+ miles across the marsh from the launch pad. I have never read a description of a launch that did it justice, until now.

It was an early morning launch, but as the Discovery lifted off the pad and began to climb, the black sky was filled with light. I remember watching those first few seconds after lift-off, and then thinking, "There's no noise." Then the sound wave came to us from the pad, moving across the water of the marsh until it surrounded us, engulfed us, filled us.

That's when I started to cry too.

That experience is something I will never forget, and I hope that others will have the opportunity to witness it again in the future.

Thanks for putting into words the thoughts that I cannot.

Thank you.


I'm speechless... You have proven to me that it IS indeed possible to improve on perfection, at least what I perceive to be perfection, because each new essay is better than the last.

In my early twenties, my Dad was active in the CAF, and I went along to shows meetings, errands, etc. I was still pretty much a 4-wheeled, rubber-tired gearhead, but hey..machines are machines. I had plenty enough history as well to love those old warbirds, for what they had done, along with the men who flew them.

By sheer accident, I found myself at the CAF hanger at D/FW Greater Southwest one Saturday morning. Three Colonels had flown in from Harlingen the previous day on the way to a big shindig in DC. They had sceduled their departure for dawn that morning. We met various D/FW members at the hangar before dawn to assist in whatever the pilots might need before leaving.

In the predawn hours, the light chatter, the coffee, the clink of rigging buckles, and the hollow, metal clunks of aircraft inspection doors set the stage. I was just enjoying the morning as the guys suited up, made preflights, and went to their cockpits.

In the orange dawn, one of the Colonels tapped me on the shoulder, pointed to the big, two-wheeled fire extinguisher against the hangar wall, and said "Go do fire watch on the 47". and walked off. Huh? Homina homina homina...what? My Dad came over, and whispered some quick, and to the point instructions, and walked off.

I wheeled the big FE out onto the apron, and assumed the proper 45* angle off the big radial in the cowling, about 15 feet away. It was dead quiet. Everyone had stopped talking to watch. Zero breeze, perfect temperature, the sun not quite peeking over the horizon. Every clunk, and bump in the cockpit was audible as the pilot made ready. "Clear!" The starter whined..then one jug caught, then three. Sounding every bit like a cold flathead Ford from the depths of hell, the big engine coughed, popped, and began to sort itself out amid billowing clouds of white smoke, then roared to life like some primeval beast. I have never heard dead silence rent like that in my life, before, or since. The run up, and taxi out were almost anti-climactic. My Dad was grinning from ear to ear, and only said "well?" In reverent tones normally reserved for church, I said "My God..now THAT...is a HOT ROD!!"

That's one of my "moments", Bill. I know exactly what you mean. My memory still savors that experience like fine wine that just gets better. Old cowboys call these "shining times". By the way, there were two other warbirds there that day, and I can't tell you what they were.:) The 47 has remained as one of my very favorites.


Your sentiments express the thought that I have not been able to talk about or to completely understand. I'm very inspired by your words. I'll be coming back to read more of your writings. Thank you.

My heart is beating so fast! What a great essay BW.

I have thought so much about what it was like for the crew during those last moments and now I believe I understand...more than I ever thought I could. I know I've said it before, but once again...thank you.

Bill, you have outdone yourself! Courage is not the preserve of those who engage in bluster, narcissism, or self-promotion, but those who quietly get things done, and seeing their duty, carry it out regardless of cost.

Let me add my admiration and thanks to those above. The eloquence and depth in your writings are truly superb, and this blog is very healing.


Oh. My. God.

This was *so* incredibly worth the wait, I can't begin to express it.

I'm linking this over in Electric Minds, right now.

You rock. Undeniably and without question.

I've followed space issues for a long time; I never miss a shuttle launch on TV if I can watch it, and my only regret in that regard is that I've never gotten to see one in person. And yes, I can name at least one crew member who's taken that ride safely; he happens to have my last name (though I'm not related, as far as I know)...that would be Kenneth Bowersox, veteran of 4 Shuttle missions (2 as pilot, 2 as commander) and now one of the three guys who are currently up on the ISS, their planned ride home scuttled. My grandfather was very interested in his career before his death, and I completely understand why.

And the best way we can honor the memory of the Columbia crew, in my opinion, is to keep flying, to keep sending humans into space, to keep improving our technology to bring closer the day when the human race will get off this rock. If we turn away and bury our heads in the sand, then all that they went through means absolutely nothing...but, if we learn from what went wrong and keep moving forward, then Commander Husband and his crew did not die in vain.


If you're ever in South Carolina, let me know. I owe you a drink.

Ditto for North Carolina. Holy cow, I think I need a kleenex....

Exelent essay. What else is there to say?

Thank You

Jesus. Great job.


Damn Bill. I didn't think it was possible to accurately define "courage". I also didn't think it was possible for any given writing to take me back to my childhood, and re-produce the feelings I felt when I watched my father climb into the cockpit of a shiny F-104.

I'm glad I was wrong. This is your best piece by far.

Wonderful. Thank you so very much.

Geez...How DO you keep doing it?!? Thank you!

I am jealous of your talent. I feel like Salieri(sp?) to your Mozart.

the last bit was the best. really good, really helpful description with your insight explained at the start. thanks.

Very well done.

I was cruising some left leaning forums after the accident, where several argued that it was just a plane crash, nothing like losing a REAL hero like Paul Wellstone. Finally in exasperation, other leftists told them straight out "You have no soul." I guess if you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas like those.

You expressed the soul far beyond what I've yet read by "professional" journalists. Keep it up.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

This reminded me a bit of Robert Heinlein when he was at the height of his powers, writing things especially like The Man Who Sold The Moon. Nice job, Bill.

Very good essay - I was enchanted. I am bookmarking your site right now.

I have gone out to watch the International Space Station fly over my state several times in the last week - on Wednesday she flew right along Orion's belt on a clear moonlit night - just lovely. I think about those people now - as so few have experienced space flight as lyrically described by you, even fewer have ever experienced what those three people up there are feeling right now - actually being marooned far from Earth and not knowing how they will get home. How they must have felt when they heard about the Columbia and known that we would not have any more shuttle flights for a long time boggles the mind.

I was intrigued by what you said about the Space Shuttle's original plan - the "piggyback" method of getting the orbiter up and out. I remember that now - didn't they do that with the test mule 'Enterprise'? One question - what was the plan for getting the shuttle back to Earth in that scenario? Would it have hooked up with the other vehicle on the return trip as well, or fly in alone as they have been doing? I don't remember what the plan was back then in the testing stages, but it would seem to me that if they were trying to reduce risk at launch, they would try to do the same at re-entry. Would it have been possible to rendezvous on the way home too?

I am only part way through it, and the writing has the same discipline as the men and women (you describe) who fly the jets and the Space Shuttle.

I'll print it out and take a copy over for Daniel Boone to read!

Thank you. I turned my stereo off once I started to read; your essay was musical in its own right.

I recently applied for a Navy scholarship. The officers that interviewed me for it asked what "honor, courage, and commitment" (navy core values) mean to me. I answered with one word: Challenger.

I got the scholarship, along with a seat in Pensacola once I graduate.

Thanks again, Bill.

Fantastic writing Mr. Whittle, thank you for sharing your thoughts with all of us and yes, you need to sit down and put all of this into a book, I know I would buy a case and give one to all of my friends!!

Thank you, Bill. As brilliant as your previous essays have been, this one sets a new standard; but how could it be otherwise, when writing about something so obviously close to your heart?

Between you and Lileks, I can't believe I'm getting all this for free. (Book! Book! Book!)

To any who suggest cutting out the "college professors" section, I respectfully disagree. In an essay about courage, it is necessary to spend some time discussing its opposite. Keep it in, Bill.

A powerful and touching post. Thank you.


Great essay. Damn, I wish I could write as well as you do.

Semper fi, brother.

Brilliant and beautiful, as always. Well worth the wait.

If only I could be so eloquent.

I was an Air Force brat, and grew up around all manner of military folks. The courage you describe is well represented throughout our armed forces, where the most dangerous occupations are performed with unmatched skill, professionalism, courage and love. The astronauts are the best and most public example of these qualities, but we're fortunate that they exist in great quantities in other important areas (like firefighters, too). As long as we have people like that, we can cancel out a few cowards.

Awesome! AGAIN. Thanks, Bill.

This piece exemplifies all that is good about the Internet and the WWW. To think that I can get this with my Sunday morning coffee for the cost of the connect time….

You really touched me. I feel some closure for the first time since that terrible morning. I’m send this link to everyone I know (and I will badger them until they read every word).

Thank you so much.


I'm starting a new section on my blog dedicated to great writings. Yours will be the first entry.

I'm calling it "The Finest" form now, but I'm looking for a good title.

Any suggestions are welcome...


Job well done, Bill. What most impressed me about your essay was your connection of love and passion to courage.

By relating your own experience of how a young boy falls in love with the idea of space flight, you wonderfully concertized how one can be motivated by passion to pursue goals that are risky, even dangerous, but rewarding beyond compare.

Some may consider the deaths of the Columbia Seven as acts of selflessness. I do not. I think it was each crew member's personal love for exploration, knowledge and challenge that fueled their courage and propelled them in orbit. There's nothing selfless about that.

Thank you, Bill, for putting into words what many of us can only feel.

Wonderful essay. I have one very minor point- shouldn't the line that reads "There is a right of passage for everyone in the US, and that is your first teenage road trip" actually read "...rite of passage...?" Otherwise another piece of your usual transcendent writing. It's amazing that I pay for a subscription to my crappy little local paper when I get such fantastic writing for free online.

It was by accident that I first came into the world of weblogs. This essay has served to reinforce that it was a happy accident.

By drawing a connection between courage and love, you are echoing the words of Thomas Paine, the insufferably brilliant wordsmith of the American Revolution.

In his first "Crisis" Paine recounted the speech of a Tory who, with child beside him concluded his remarks with the statement, "Well! give me peace in my day." Paine wrote that the man had shown his unfitness as a parent because, knowing that a conflict was nearly inevitable, he had chosen to pass the horror of war onto his progeny that he might live in peace. What a fit parent should have said, Paine wrote, was "If there must be trouble, let it be in my day, that my child may have peace." In other words, the Tory showed no courage because he had no love for his child.

Your essay has captured the raw emotion of the connection between love an courage very well. It is not often, especially in these days, that we find men or women capable of holding their ground with the true giants of freedom, such as Thomas Paine. That your essay echoes his writing so closely without becoming derivative of the master speaks volumes for your abilities.

Until today I had read only one other piece of writing that captured that which is the best in us. That was Robert A. Heinlein's "The Long Watch".

I wish I had the skill to express to you what reading your essay did for me today, but I don't. So I must simply say...

Thank you.

Thank you.

By 7:55 things were looking worse – a lot worse..........Thats when I stopped reading. Goddammit! I didn't want to go any further, I wanted out of this nightmare, NOW! I logged off and went to my personal refuge, my garden, where troubles seem to dissipate with each chore, each shovel of earth, each snip of the pruning shears.
Well, it didn't work today because my mind was still racing @ approx. Mach 18. After I kicked hell out of the dog, and screamed at the wife & kids, I went (jut-jawed) back on line, knowing damn well that I still didn't want to finish this tragic account, but that I had to. And yes, this macho mofo lost it! Cathartic.
BEAUTIFUL! Mr. Whittle.

I spent 20 years in the USAF, 25 months of that in Combat. You,sir, brought all that back and more. This is one of the FINEST works I have ever read. Thanks so much for the pleasure of reading it.

God Bless you


I spent 20 years in the USAF, 25 months of that in Combat. You,sir, brought all that back and more. This is one of the FINEST works I have ever read. Thanks so much for the pleasure of reading it.

God Bless you


You hit a hard spot right between the eyes. You've got a real gift, for which all of us are thankful. Thanks.

The only other time I've ever heard or read commentary that quite grasped the audience, the moment, the demand to be spoken to was when I attended the graduation of a friend from the US Naval Academy in 1993, when John McCain spoke on some of these very same themes (it's on his Senate website, dig around) -- you've not only grasped the moment, you've got that emotion wrestled to the ground and sitting up for snacks.


Your essays are like stepping inside a cathedral: works of such beauty and spirit that you feel like taking your hat off when you behold them. :)

Thanks for this. It's practically a command: that courage is more than family- size self confidence, you need self- mastery, knowledge, and skill to wield true courage. It's a subtle sign to a young pup that when the traditional bravado (some would say arrogance, eh Angillion? No hard feelings over earlier harshly- worded opinions, I hope) fails, you have to develop true ability and value in your life. No sense in privately complaining that other people are too stupid to see your value, or that you're better than other people: you just go out the next day, learn something new. Just by staying true to your beliefs and learning new ways to express them, life will eventually be better.

Once again, thanks for the inspiration. :) :)

What a day, got up early, read this. We then went to our daughter's Church for the yearly ceremony where parents dedicate the babies to God and Church, it's her and her husband's first child.
I don't know which of those two things was the more spiritual experience. Thank you, Bill.

Absolutely beautiful. Once I wipe the tears from my eyes, I will salute you, sir. Job well done.

Wow, Bill. Truly inspiring, masterful prose. My father is a private pilot, and only now do I fully understand the allure... though your words translate to any human passion. There are tears in my eyes.

Bill, Thanks for taking me back. For me it was July 1976 in Springfield, Ill. I was nine and my dad took me to the airshow. To this day I can remember exactly where I sat in the bleachers when I watched those men walk out to their planes - T-38s for me. Just like you, I was a bit disappointed when they took off and disappeared. Like you, I remember the narrators words, "Your United States Air Force Thunderbirds" and the roar that ripped through me when those jets screamed just overhead in a blur. I decided, at that moment, that I was going to be an Air Force pilot. I still have the airshow pamphlet with each Thunderbird pilot's signature. Fortunately for me, my eyes were good enough and I have the distinct pleasure of being paid by the government to do what I love. I love it, and would never trade it for anything eventhough I've experienced that moment you spoke about twice, both times brought on by wake turbulance in formation. Both times I felt an intense peace even as I did my darndest to recover the plane. It was like my mind split - one part had the yoke full right and pulled back to g-up the plane, with the top pedal smashed to the floor as my C-130 slowly rolled inverted to the left, but another part of my mind was thinking, "All things considered, this isn't that bad of a way to go." You captured that moment here.

Thank you.

That's what we were lacking in leadership for the eight years of the Clinton administration as Clinton had no courage (or class, or ethics, or core beliefs, etc.)

Having been a student pilot (had to quit because I am on too many (legal) prescription drugs that the FAA doesn't allow),I know the feeling involved with flight. My first solo flight was terrifying and at the end exhilarating for I had done it on my own! Every solo fight after that was awesome! That's why I have to laugh every time I hear someone calling Bush dumb. You cannot be dumb and fly high performance jets.

A few years back I read something interesting about the space program. Werner von Braun wanted to do it incrementally. First get to low orbit and develop a way station. From there, another vehicle could take us to high orbit and from there we would have a vehicle to take us to the moon. Unfortunately, that would take too long and we had to beat the Soviet Union to the moon so we did it with throwaway technology. We have been paying the price ever since.

"If you do not believe it is possible to love an inanimate object,...."

Weapons have personalities. People who've never had to defend their lives don't understand this.

There are average people who train for that one day they hope will never come. Just folks, not police or firemen or infantry. They're scared when they think about that day. The thing they fear the most is that they'll fail when someone needs them to be there.

A friend of mine is aged and nearing the end of his life. He asked me to be the executor of his will, and for my fee he wants me to have a beat up old .45 auto worth maybe $150.00. With it he shot some guy pulling a hold-up twenty years ago after the thief panicked and started shooting bystanders. My buddy is pretty well off, and he owns property and has a pretty good portfolio. That gun is the most precious thing he owns.

Guys like me know all about how Columbia was alive. I just want to point out that it's not just vehicles that are alive.


I received this link from a friend in CAP. This was the first time I read your writing. It is magnificent!!!!! My family has always had a connection to the shuttle program (My son was born the day the first shuttle landed, and I watched it in the hospital). Both Challenger and Columbia felt like getting hit in the stomach, and losing a part of my family. You capture the feelings so perfectly, and I can only say, as others have, THANK YOU for expressing what so many of us have been feeling inside, but have been unable to articulate.

Oh wow! Thank you so much for that it was absolutely beautiful.

thank you, this is so deep that It will be read over the years and will keep on giving.

A wonderful tribute to the crews of Colombia and Challenger - very moving indeed - Bob Heinlein would weep.

Beautiful. I look forward to saying, "I read him when..."

First of all I'd like to thank you for moving me like few other works have ever done.

Next, I'd like to quibble a minor point. I believe that Top Gun's creators had a better grasp of courage than you realize.

Yes, absolutely, the bravado was blatant... my understanding of the movie was that the bravado was MEANT to stand out, and grate on us... bravado as a character flaw.

Note, please that all the bravado dissappeared after the accident in which Goose was killed. It is then that we begin to see what courage looks like.

It is to go ahead despite your fears as you said. Despite the trauma and guilt of a friend dying at your hand... not your fault perhaps, but your hand nonetheless. Going back to duty, despite KNOWING there is something different and perhaps dangerously wrong. To overcome the fear of death, or perhaps the fear of screwing up and getting someone else killed.

Though Hollywood often does mistake bravado for brvery, I believe Top Gun had it right for a change. Probably by accident :)

TO: Bill
RE: So Tell Me...

...where are you getting this high-grade go-juice?

Do they bottle it?

Are they offering franchises?



Earlier today I left a note where I said I didn't have the words to express how I felt about your piece so I just said thank you. Your essay has been in my head all day, especially the last two lines. I'm sure there were a few folks in Jack-in-the-Box this afternoon wondering about the big 6'3" guy in the corner wiping tears from his eyes. On the way home I realised I did have the words, I wouldn't trade the experience of reading "Courage" for the moon.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking what must have been many hours of your life to write that and share it with us. There are some things that you read that keep making their rounds, returning to your thoughts one day or another, even after many years. I know already that your essay will be one that will keep coming back to my mind, in one form or another for years and years to come.


Beautifully written, but I have to say that you hit the 9-ring. Not the 10-ring. You've fallen into the same trap that Tom Wolfe did. It's never been about courage. It's about confidence.

You see, I knew Willie McCool. We were in the same U.S. Naval Test Pilot School class. Don't bother asking for big psycological stories - Willie was the sort of quiet professional who you didn't notice until he unobtrusively walked off with everything in sight - including Best Student. Surprised everybody.

But the big point is that no good aviator - and test pilots are the cream of the crop - regards flying as dangerous. Unforgiving, yes. Screw it up, and you were crab fodder at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. So you study, study, and study some more. Trust nothing - especially not the airplane. Plan the test - take weeks to plan a single flight - then fly the plan. It it's too hard to get the data, then that IS the data. Use your superior judgement to avoid situations that require superior skill.

Now, we all know that there are things beyond our control - things that DO demand superior skill. And some of them can't be met with any skill available to mortal men. So you get in the airplane anyway. Life: 100% mortality rate.

That might be called courage, if you like. But I always considered it more a matter of confidence - confidence that the inevitable risks have been minimized, tied up, handcuffed, and duct taped down.

Don't feel too bad, though. You got one of the big things right. When we were going through TPS - a weekly grind consisting of 6 hours of flying, 20 hours of classroom study, and about 60 hours of writing test plans and reports - one of the things we laughed at was that the taxpayers would give us these expensive fire-breathing, G-pulling flying machines to play with, hand us a share of the whole Chesapeake Bay as a playground, and PAY us to do it! Wonderful!

It beats working for a living.

Amazing... your writing never ceases to amaze me. Thank you.

I enjoyed it all, especially the bits about academia. You should write an entire essay about the fall of our educational system and its effect on society.

Great read.

'It's never been about courage. It's about confidence.'

I have to disagree. I think confidence is too relative to certain situations to be a more suitable emotion to draw upon in situations like these than courage is. Ask any WW2 pilot to choose any aircraft they want and most likely it would be a P-47. Pilots had more confidence when flying that plane than anything else. They felt safer in it. The plane put up the numbers to prove it too, and won Discovery Wings best aircraft of all time with a 1% relative loss(3077 out of over 300,000 or close) over the course of the war boasting bigger stats in the kill column. This plane kicked serious ass.

The same could be said about a pilot in an F-117. Almost certainly being undetected would unleash a confidence in mission success than it would had you taken an F-16, but then again, the F-117 isn't the best plane when it comes to performance. Most pilots can't stand the way it flies, but would gladly tell you it's all worth it when you know that you can't be seen. That's confidence.

But what about courage? You would need the same amount of courage to strap yourself into an aircraft full knowing the slighest mistake could mean your death, regardless of having the advantage of stealth technology or not.

I think courage was the right spectrum of emotion to draw upon to drive home the concluding points he made at the end.

Bravo, Billy Baroo! An excellent way to cap an excellent day. My mother's birthday you see, and the whole family got together. Something you may not know about me (note: Bill and I are friends), I can not only name an astronaut but saw one with regularity during graduate school at UAB. Payload Specialist aboard Columbia, 1992. And to think, now, of my little punk self of my very early graduate school days addressing the man as simply "Larry"...

To wit:

"SPACE FLIGHT EXPERIENCE: Dr. DeLucas was a member of the crew of Space Shuttle Columbia for STS-50 (June 25-July 9, 1992), the United States Microgravity Laboratory-1 (USML-1) Spacelab mission. Over a two-week period, the crew conducted a wide variety of experiments relating to materials processing and fluid physics. At mission conclusion, Dr. DeLucas had traveled over 5.7 million miles in 221 Earth orbits, and had logged over 331 hours in space."

So I owe DR. DeLUCAS an apology of sorts. Not that he'd ask for one. He might even refuse it. He chose to go by "Larry". I should have refused to let him. Especially with so many non-worthy men insisting on the contrary. Looking back, Dr. DeLucas is one of the truly bright spots and points of pride to take away from that particular academic association. Very humble, especially in contrast to the puffed up toads you often find in academia. But the guys swinging the big ones don't make a big show of it, do they? They 'know'. ;)

This is simply the best piece of writing about the American Spirit I have read in many, many years.

As a retired Naval Aviator, I have often tried to capture the beauty, purity and essence of my aviation experience a la Earnest K. Gann and Richard Bach. I have not been able to do so to my satisfaction.

You have set an even higher standard before me, and I congratulate you.

You have also challenged me to make the effort, once again. I may not get there, but thank you for encouraging me (through this essay) to make the effort.

Excellent article. I was one of the lucky ones who made it through Air Force pilot training and the comment about dying happy when you see amazing views from the air was on the money. I've lost quite a few friends and acquaintances in military aviation crashes over the years and it's kind of weird. You know they are gone, but you realize that as long as you tell stories about them and laugh at their misadventures while alive, they'll always live in your heart. It helps, a little bit. I was on vacation when Columbia failed to land and it was almost surreal, like it was something I read in a novel and just happened to remember. Then I heard something that hit closer to home. Because of my profession (Air Force special ops helicopter pilot), I heard more bad news after the Columbia break-up.

Most people don't realize it, but there was a military crash the same day as the Columbia mishap. In Afghanistan, a U.S. Army MH-60 special ops helicopter crashed while flying a training mission. The crew, two warrant officers and two enlisted men, perished in the crash. Unlike the astronauts, no one knows their names, or remembers them in televised tributes. Chances are, no one outside the special ops community even thinks about them now. They lived in drafty tents, ate disgusting MRE rations and froze their asses off flying through the mountains of Central Asia in open door helicopters. Their pay sucked, most had been away from home almost a year and only a few back here seem to care about them or their families. These are the same guys portrayed in the movie "Blackhawk Down", some of them getting shot down and having their bodies multilated by cheering crowds. Needless to say, the flying is dangerous, much more so than even normal military aviation. Since you work closely with ground-fighting units, these kind of flyers tend to live like infantrymen, with all the discomfort that implies. I'm not trying to take anything away from this great tribute to the Columbia crew. They are heroes in the finest sense of the word, trying to expand our horizons beyond our single planet. Just remember the little guys overseas who die in aviation crashes all the time, chasing down the violent extremists who bring terror to U.S. cities. God bless Warrant Officers O'Steen and Gibbons as well as Sergeants Kisling and Frampton. May their sacrifice not be in vain.

Really good writing on physical courage mixed with moral cowardice in your attacks on academia.

Thanks for around ninety percent of this piece--I wholeheartedly enjoyed and admired it. As for the rest, well bud, them's fightin' words where I come from.

By the way, I own all all Heinlein's books (okay, my wife has _Grumbles from the Grave_) and admire him greatly. I'm not one of those who think _Starship Troopers_ advocates fascism. It's just a philosophical novel, and a good one at that. But I'm very worried at my country's foreign policy sounding like someone afraid that, if RAH returned from the dead, he might call him a chowderhead.


I've actually not read an article by you before. I haven't kept up very well with some blogs, but Frank at IMAO linked you, saying it was one of the best blogs he had ever read.

Allow me to agree with him.

I guess I could sort of relate to this. The other night, my friend and I were bored. Of course, we get into mischief and what not...we vandalized a high school pretty badly. This morning, as we were driving past it, there were about 4 cop cars and 13 or so cops milling around. This is to be understood, but it sent a shock through me, seeing as how we've messed with this high school before but the authorities have never been alerted. I am not 100% on this, but I think...I think that they were fingerprinting. If this is the case, as it probably is, then I will most likely be caught.

What you have written has helped me cope with this fact. Although I don't think your intention for this essay was to comfort stupid teenage kids such as myself, it did. Whatever happens to me will happen, and in the ultimate scheme of things, it won't matter.

It did also, inspire me. When/if I get caught, I will undoubtedly get the whole "wasting away your youth, stupid unworthy kid," etc. But, now I am inspired to go out there and try hard. To log all those hours like the honorable pilots you mentioned. To forget about the glory and bravado(although it is nice), and actually work.

If one day, I should be in a situation like Rick Husband, Willie McCool, Dave Brown, Laurel Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Mike Anderson, and Ilan Ramon - I want to deserve to be told "Guys, we aren't gonna make it." I want to be able to accept that and understand it like my colleagues, through the mutual and unspoken acceptance of the fact that we earned it. That I earned it.

Excellent EXCELLENT essay. Thank you.

- Jeff

Great write I have been flying for 20 years in all and I have served in the Military with pride.

I too have experienced many of the things you write about. Buddies of mine have gotten killed when the auger one in or from planes that have come apart on them. I have walked away from a bird and went straight to the bar because of almost became a statistic that day.

After 8000 flight hours and 20yrs I have more than one eye raising tale. The shuttle crew new the risk and were true professionals in every sense of the word. God Bless them and there families. Unlike the trade tower survivors who some received millions the military will be pay the designated recipient 250,000 dollars and they will receive a flag folded in honor of there sacrifice. The burial expenses will barely be covered and the wife will receive a monthly stipend check so long as she never re-marries. The kids will get Survivors Social Security till there 18 and will have some benefits to insure they get a college education.

The price for freedom and doing what we do out there on the edge is what makes America great. The only thing we can do now is salute the fallen hero's and get back on the horse and do it again.

For the military personeel who stick there necks out on the line every day America should honor those that perish the same way the have honored Columbia Crew.

Thank you for this beautiful writing. As a boy I grew up in Soviet Union and watched Soyuz crews. I moved to Israel, where we have terrorists and - now - space flights. I share your emotions and praise your conclusions.

I was transfixed by your prose. I found it difficult to breathe at times.....and read as well, as my vision blurred courtesy of hyperactive tearducts.

How can glowing phosphor dots on a remote, impersonal computer monitor move one's soul like that.....but that's the power of IDEAS. And COURAGE. And LOVE.

The only tragedy worse than the Columbia explosion IMO is few outside the blogosphere will ever read your compelling and awe-spiring words. People who NEED to read this.

WOW !! !! !!

[Wipe eyes; blow nose.]

Thank you.

I added you're site to my favorites list the second after I read one of your essays. I have been left in awe by your insite and clarity, and "Courage" is by far the best you have written. I have told everyone I know about your site and they all come back with the same response..."Oh...My...God." "Courage" was well worth the wait. Thank you and keep 'em coming.

We're fortunate to have your marvelous gift coupled with heart and intellect, Bill. Keep up the good work!

Wow. I can't think of anything else to say. This essay is wonderful. It captures the spirit of all pioneers. Astronauts are still very much pioneers, venturing into the new world of space. Each flight up is a new experience and nothing is routine.

My fascination with aviation comes from growing up around Air Forces bases all over the US and even in Europe. I have known many pilots and their families. They are not the "Maverick" and "Goose" the movies would have you believe. They're everday people facing the same problems and situations we do, what's the difference? Simple, they have the courage to do something that not just anyone can do. They are physically gifted with strong bodies and even stronger minds. The ability to make rational decsions in the time it takes to sneeze. These men and women are of the finest caliber. From the rank of aviators are chosen the very best and brightest to pilot shuttles to space, these men and women are the best at what they do. It takes a person of great talent and education to be on a shuttle mission, it also takes something that far to many of us lose as we grow up, imagination. To imagine that nothing is beyond the realm of possibilites, a can do attitude and the ever buring desire to try harder. I admire them, I can only dream of that life... if given the chance tomorrow I too would strap myself in and take a chance, I would revel in it; living each moment to its fullest adn appreciate the fact that I too had been there. The benefits of space travel far outweigh the risks, the cost of the shuttle program is a drop in the ocean compared with the life saving and life changing devices the program has produced.

That was so inspiring, beautiful writing. Thanks M

As a light-hearted aside to the serious nature of this essay...

I have been friends with Bill Whittle for...oh the last 12 years I suppose...Love him to death. Think his writing on this blog is terrific.

BUT I suggest, my friend, that you compose an essay that explains how you can HATE, HATE, HATE TOP GUN and still have gone to see the deplorable STARSHIP TROOPERS--TWICE!--in the theater. I saw STARSHIP TROOPERS on cable and from that experience I can say that true courage is a repeat viewing of that particular film.

Keep up the good work on this site, Billy. Your voice will continue to grow as you continue to write.

I cannot wait for you to meet my daughter. She's 15. You will adore her wit, her directness, and her innocense. After you've met her, you won't care so much what the idiots who hate America say or do.

I never saw the Thunderbirds, but I saw the Flying Tigers. Obviously, it didn't impact me the way it did you, although I did find myself in a cockpit of a Cessna, that appeared to be made of Barbie Toy parts, on my 18th birthday. I never flew again after that. My head and heart might love flying but my stomach has override authority.

I heard a different thunder at the age of five and I've been chasing it ever since--but I know exactly what you mean.

That love you talk about is "passion." I don't care what someone's passion is, but hearing about it, seeing their eyes light up when they are close to it, or watching them chasing after it, is, well... (Nods)

Thank you, Bill. With all my heart.

Please excuse the comments from my friend Alex Campbell. His continuing bitterness over not being selected to host TOTAL REQUEST LIVE, coupled with his messy break-up with Pauly Shore -- who no longer returns his calls -- has driven him quite insane.

SCHINDLER'S LIST, CITIZEN CANE, RAGING BULL -- these we rightly revere as masterpieces of the art of cinema. But towering over them like a colossus is the most nuanced, the most refined piece of visual poetry ever put to film, and that is STARSHIP TROOPERS. From Casper Van Diem's nuanced subtlety, to Denise Richards spot-on casting as a hyperspace pilot, all the way through Michael Ironsides' inspired portrayal of the everyday, common, cybernetic-armed field commander, it is a panoply, a FEAST if you will, of insight into the human condition.

As for the rest of you, I just don't know what to say, except thank you. To anyone who thinks I write these for free, I would like for you to see my face when I read the kind of comments I receive. You can't buy this feeling for real money.

Bill Whittle

Mr. Whittle - sir!


I have not wept like that since my mother died...and, before that, since, when I was 14, my father died.

Thank you for this, your latest and most evocative piece.

If you do not collect the work you have done so far, plus the work you are (without question) yet to do, into a book and see it published as widely as possible, you will go to your grave someday as a traitor to mankind.

Life is short, at best, and deserves, therefore, to be done right the first time. You're doing it right, writing things like this. Keep it up.

Mr. Whittle,

If you ever write a book, I'll buy 3..in hardcover (1 for me, 2 for lucky friends);)

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

You have put into words things that I have felt, but could not express to others. I wish all of the folks with No Fear bumper stickers could be persuaded to read this. I always thought that they missed the point by a wide margin. Maybe we can come up with one they can cover it up with, with the simple word, "COURAGE".

I was taken out of flying for some time due to a loss of my 1st class (commercial) medical certificate, and miss it terribly. With a still-wet 3rd class (private) in my pocket, I will be returning to aviation in the near future, thanks in no small part to your inspiration. Please keep up the good work, and please find a way to put it all into a book. We need this, and more like it.


I always found flight 98 to be sadder than the Pentagon and the WTC; most likely because they died doing something about it, instead of dying buckled into their seats and letting their fear and complacency get the best of them. Sacrifice is always made the more noble when it comes as a preventative measure, like the man throwing himself on the grenade in the first part of your essay. Not that the soldier's life is worth more than his companions', but that through his selfless actions he made it the more valuable.

I'm stunned... Humbled... Anything I could say would be but a pale echo of what's already been said.

The link to your essay was posted on a scale modeling forum I frequent. While blessed with a few quiet minutes at work I decided to come read it; little did I know the emotions that would be brought forth.

I've forwarded this site's address to a number of co-workers, several of whom have replied to me already with similar feelings.

Wonderful wonderful writing... Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts; I most definitely will be back.

I agree about TOP GUN it sucks, or more exactly it is thoroughly absurd: the hero needs to go to the Top Gun school (where only the best and most experienced are sent in order to learn the need of remaining close to his wingman. Holy ghost! that is something even cadet pilots in Third World Air Forces know: that there are very simple tactics for two planes defeating a single one. No way a pilot ignoring this would ever be allowed to fly an F14 and still less be sent to Top Gun.

For Starship Troopers, I was put off by the blood and violence of the movie but also by its absurdity. First: Why the humans don't use nukes, chemical or germ warfare? There is no public opinion and no fear of contamination so why not use WMDs on the aliens specially after Buenos Aires is destroyed? And since they are... aliens it should be possible to design a bacteria who is deadly for them and harmless for us so we can settle their planets after they have been wiped out.

Second: The planets are completely desert without any trace of vegetal life and no animals except the aliens. Suddenly zillions of them appear from nowhere. How are they are fed in those deserts?

Third: It is evident that human weapons are unadequate and you that need half a dozen humans for disaptching an alien. So unless the humans far outnumber the aliens they have little chances of winning. And still the human generals time and again send their troops against alien forces outnumbering them one hundred to one. What kind of generals are these? What kind of troops would walk into such hopeless battles?

Fourth: The troopers are dispersed like post WWII soldiers but given that the aliens don't fire but try to close into hand to jaw combat and that human weapons are so unefficient the humans should try to form the square in best napoleonic style in order to cpnebtrate their fire and reduce the number of aliens who can close on them at a given instant. Instead they use tactics designed for meeting machine guns and allow the aliens pick them one by one.

Five: Why in the hell the humans aren't using tanks? Put a couple of M1 tanks, let's them roll through the alien hordes and collect the alien juice from their tracks.

I heard that the book is much better, more logical and was a hommage to courage but that the movie was made by a pacifist who wanted to depict the horrors of war. Instead he depicted the hrrors of absurdity.

Often have I had the thought that indeed FEAR is the most profound enemy of liberty. While I profess no belief in providence or divinity, it has scarcely remonstrated to my love of life and liberty and the COURAGE I know to be the only suitable vehicle for such passions.

I am quite moved - more so for this having been my first experience with your work, (and it won't be my last). Thank you for having the courage to write.


I would like to thank you for your remarks upon the courage it takes to live poor. There are so many different kinds of courage, but it seems that the courage it takes to be poor, to be disabled, to have emotional or mental disorders... these kinds of courage require patience and fortitude, with no shining reward at the end of years of attrition.

I know, at this point in my life, that I will likely never go into space. But I am satisfied as long as I know that someone can do it.

I think you should send your letter to NASA. I know there are many discouraged and demoralized souls there who could use your words of encouragement.

Last summer, on an old service road that skirts our local airport. I felt that feeling of shame you mentioned as a blue and gold FA/18 Hornet screamed over my head at no more than 100 feet, banking so hard that the air above his wings popped into vapor as he turned to get into formation to make another pass by the grandstands almost a mile back up the runway. I found myself cheering YES! YES! YES! uncontrollably and jumping up and down as one right after an other the Blue Angels came screaming by on their way to another manuever for folks over a mile away. The were doing there Low Show and I had the best seat in the house. I'm 38 years old and was almost moved to tears. What right do I have to think I am "good" at anything after seeing that. It is very traumatic when a former know-it-all like myself comes to the realization that the folks polishing the windshield of one of those planes has contributed more to the good fight than I have in all my "grand" endevours.


Bill, this is great and true.



I help put Columbia together worked her first 7 flights so I have a feeling of what Bill speaks. Those birds are alive. Look how hard she tried to live at the end. Challenger did the same.

My only comment is that what hit the ground was a bunch of junk.

Columbia did make it home.


The movie bore little relation to the book beyond the title. Pretend the movie never existed and go read the book. That flick was a rape on the order of the original 'DUNE' move...Hideous.


Mr. Whittle,

Enclosed in your inbox, please find an invoice from a SNARL-2000 Deluxe Armoured Sarcasmotron. The newest product of the VRWC, it was designed for use after Emperor Misha's undiluted venom against the French destroyed 14 out of 15 SNARL-1000 products (the last one only survived due to the crippling arthritis the Emperor's dictating slaves was developing from issuing constant rebuttals). As the use of Level 10 Weapons of Mass Humiliation is prohibited by the European Union, The Nation Magaainze, and Ted Rall, I regret to inform you that under international law you are obliged to pay for a new machine. Preferably after paying 50% of your income to the government, as your swanking website clearly shows you can afford to, and anyways your amazing essayist skills do not qualify you for the "More Equal than Others" benefit of the International Community.

I await your prompt response,

Minister Rohan,
European Truth Commission

Your comments about your solo flight remind me about a speech given by an Iditarod race many years ago by a woman participant. She spoke of a very vivid memory of a run across a frozen lake in darkness lit only by a full moon. The breath of the dogs was so heavy it shrouded over the dogs so much that she could not see them. The moon, the lake, the dogs, the snow, the whole scene was a spiritual experience unlike any other. At that point, winning the race was no longer on her mind.

God gives gifts such as these to those who dare to go beyond human existence and Live.
They are gifts of love.

Nothing I can add to this, but a heartfelt "Thank you".

....left nothing to be desired...a work of literary art that will honor the crew of Columbia for generations to come.

Wonderful work, Bill.

"Per Ardua ad Astra"

Marvelous. Dazzling.

And a very nice crowd of commentors here, too.

One guy, though, quibbles and insists confidence is the real point. Confidence seems more an ingredient for sales rallies and catchy songs in broadway musicals, not the big, soaring premise for a sweeping essay.

Bill Whittle runs rings around Courage and manages to provide more than a glimpse and a brush with its true nature--for each of us no doubt in different measure and at different points. I know nothing, for instance, about flying machines or lawn mowers for that matter. But under the spell of a grand concept, in the hands of a superb writer, I was gripped by mechanical details and pilot-speak, and could even imagine being an astronaut!

It always amazes and inspires me to discover a person who can sprinkle thousands of little black letters on a white page and create something so powerful that I am captive and forever changed.

Bill, you've got a gift. Thank you.

Just when I'm ready to sit down and pull my hair out, what little I have left, watching the cowards march down Market Street in San Francisco, damning this nation, this great work of man, defending terrorist nations, for no reason they can offer, just when I'm about to give up hope in this great country, I find you essay, and realize, once again, why we are a great nation. There was no courage in San Francisco yesterday, there was appeasement and fear. Reading Courage, I realized once again the American dream. This is great writing, now if I could just stop crying.

Slightly OT, but given that Bill's so fond of technoheads:

It’s often claimed by right-wing web pundits that engineers and “hard scientists” deal in “facts” and therefore give better political analysis than other people; the first response that occurs to me is that any halfway decent scientist nowadays knows their Thomas Kuhn and those other thinkers who emphasise the provisional and changeable nature of scientific “certainty”; second, that the kind of knowledge one might have from a “hard-science” profession might not translate well to the social sphere (surely one should turn to sociologists and anthropologists if one is looking for the professional experts in society); thirdly, do you really think a person’s professional life is the sum total of their opinions and the way their mind works? that you can lump in people who do the same job as all having the same mindset?; and finally, look to what happens in totalitarian regimes. Engineers and “hard scientists” can usually do their job as happily under democracies as under totalitarian regimes; it’s the poets, sociologists and protestors who get silenced in the latter. Maybe, therefore, it is those vocations – the ones about raising uncomfortable questions, the ones that deal in a plurality of meanings - that should be listened to about the threat of totalitarianism rather than the people whose professional lives are by and large unaffected by the nature of the state that rules them.

In fact, that should be the question for today – if your job (eg aircraft design) wouldn’t be impeded by a totalitarian government, it’s worth engaging in some serious self-questioning. And if it would (eg scholar, writer, social worker), you’d better start thinking about getting politically engaged.

Wonderfull! Just wonderfull!


Beautiful. Powerful. Full of grace and truth.

I'd love to tell my story, but all I can muster now is,



absolutely wonderful, thank you for articulating what many of us feel in our heart and minds.

if the number of e-mails referring me to this site are any indication - your going to melt your ISP in about a week - and your sitemeter will give up. This is moving like wildfire thru the armed forces.

mind if I post a link to here in about a dozen message boards? I have already seen it on three - check out your reviews at The Free Republic

Thanks so much for taking the time to write and post this essay. It explained things I'll never get to feel, as well expressed things that I do feel.

"This is something reserved for the very best people we have as a species." Those that bask in their demise don't deserve to be part of it...

Thanks for the excellent wrap-up to the Columbia tragedy. We can get numb to far-away accidents happening to people we don't know. You helped put things into a human/love perspective, and reminded us of the type of people (both pilots and support crew) needed to reach for the stars.



Manned spaceflight is when God lets man borrow the keys for the weekend.

Great stuff.

Someone has finally put into words what I've felt for a long time. Thank you, Bill.

For what it's worth, I was training in a Cessna 150 over central Florida on the morning of the Challenger explosion. I watched it happen from my cockpit window. The memory is still raw with me to this day.

Your article shook loose emotions I had bottled up even through the Columbia disaster. I needed that.

Please, keep writing and publishing.

Damn, I need to go dry my eyes again. I can't leave the house in this condition...

Five by five again, Bill. If you're ever in my neck of the woods, this Kansas boy owes you some barbecue and a cold beer.


Words fail me, as much as they did not fail you.


Bill, you really must arrange to get your essays republished in book form, and then arrange to send em to every school in America and, for that matter, to my country, Britain. This essay was a corker.

Like my good friend Russell Whitaker (who comments on your post a cople of bars above), you have perfectly summed up why those of us love things like flying and sailing. Yachting is my passion, and much that you say applies to that as well as aircraft.

I want to show this article to my dad (ex-Royal Air Force navigator in the 1950s). He said one of the things he loved about being sent up on a high-altitude mission was suddenly breaking above the grey fog of an English winter's day and into the brilliant sunshine of the high atmosphere, using his training to guide the plain to its meeting point.

If the people with the penny pinching attitudes understood things half as well as you, those amazing people might still be with us and we'd be better for it.

No more workarounds, cheap fixes and duct tape mechanics. Let's stop sending some of the money we bleed all over people who'd gladly see us dead and invest it in keeping this nations treasures around for as long as possible.

Bill, Columbia wasn't 22, she was closer to 30. Rockwell got the contract for her 6 days after my parents married on July 29, 1972. Parts of her airframe were laid down by the beginning of 1975. She was OLD for a spaceship.


I can't thank you enough for this wonderful essay. I was struck dumb when I first read it, and was struck dumb when I just read it for the second time. I've linked to it twice, and have forwarded your URL to people far and wide. This is just and simply superb.

I grew up with dreams of flight and space, and my eyesight also kept these dreams as dreams. And being too young to remember Apollo, I also remember, very vividly, making my first journey into space with Columbia and STS-1 (Young and Crippen ... still have the patch somewhere) so many years ago. Something in me died two weeks ago as she shook apart in the crystal blue sky ... something that I can't replace ... the wonder of a boy and the ship of his heroes.

My affection for the space program and admiration for our astronauts (yes, our very best and brightest) goes on, but I will always eulogize Columbia and her crew.

Thank you for so eloquently putting our emotions into words.


Thanks, man.

I've just finished reading COURAGE for the third time in as many days.
Thank you.

excellence defined

Very nice indeed.

This looks more like a tribute to your love of flying than to "Courage". In my opinion, not worth the space it's taking up.

If you want to read about courage, take a look at this URL:


Thank you for this beautiful tribute to all who reach for the stars.

I am in awe, and without words. A phenomenally amazing piece of writing!

Bill, an OUTSTANDING piece of work. I will bookmark this piece. Cheers.

It is easy to fear now days since the model of the real world that us as Americans carry around in ours brains just doesn't match our everyday inputs. People who succeed like the crew of Columbia and our other true heros, have such a razer sharp focus on their mission, goals, service to our civilization, or place in God's order of things; that it's almost like their wills bend reality. Not in some newage karma way but in knowing that the next stepping stone that can't be seen is just under the surface. Fear is just seeing the surface and not the underlining promises and principles. Thanks for the read!

Once again you have hit the nail right on the head. I am especially greatful for your emphasis on the discipline with which these people function. Anyone can get carried away with emotion but to remain calm and to continue doing one's job while knowing the outcome will be death takes true courage. Thank you for a beautiful tribute to the crew of the Columbia and to all who willingly take such risks.

A truly wonderful essay, but I didn't like the ending. Columbia should've landed in Florida. Oh well.

They've released the internal NASA e-mails discussing the potential problems. As with all aircraft, there's really no margin of safety beyond what's conservatively required, since you can't just keep adding weight. Apparently the landing gear doors can't survive the peak heating phase of re-entry if the airflow is turbulent, and missing tiles located forward of them could trip the airflow into this mode.

It was shocking to read an e-mail discussing simulating a landing with a double blow out, and then a later e-mail where they realize that a double blow-out will take out the landing gear door anyway. Even if this occured at a lower Mach number, they didn't think the shuttle would make it to Florida with the extra drag. There were lots of different ditch options being considered.

Each flight is an actual all-up rocket launch, and many of us in the public, including myself, tend to forget that, and how each deviation from normal has to be carefully watched. We also forget that some deviations and seemingly minor incidents aren't recoverable at all.

Stunning. Thank you so much.


Bill, there is little I can add in comment, so many others having voiced the same thoughts and emotions that your splendid writing evokes.
I truly hope your essays become mandatory reading for our school-age young people -- I pray that our youth will meet the ideas you talk of, and learn from them.

"Engineers and “hard scientists” can usually do their job as happily under democracies as under totalitarian regimes; it’s the poets, sociologists and protestors who get silenced in the latter. Maybe, therefore, it is those vocations – the ones about raising uncomfortable questions, the ones that deal in a plurality of meanings - that should be listened to about the threat of totalitarianism rather than the people whose professional lives are by and large unaffected by the nature of the state that rules them."

For what it's worth, this is mostly untrue. Weapons engineers, maybe, but even they have problems under totalitarian states because of the top-down nature of the organizations they work in.

In Stalin's USSR, biological research was stifled for years because one of Stalin's buddies was a crackpot named Lysenko who didn't believe in genetics and thought evolution worked by Lamarckian inheritance. Einstein's relativity was considered "degenerate Jewish science" in Nazi Germany, and both it and quantum mechanics were for a time considered poisonous "bourgeois idealism" in the USSR; the suppression of modern physics only ended when it was carefully explained to the right people in the Soviet hierarchy that there was no way to build atom bombs without speaking freely of it. Even so, while the USSR ended up eventually with top-notch minds in the sciences, their technology still lagged years behind the West and the free Far East, and depended heavily on reverse-engineering knockoffs.

I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that Sakharov, who helped give Stalin the hydrogen bomb, eventually became a dissident human-rights activist.

Finally, as a techie, my job would most certainly be hampered by a totalitarian state: I help build laser printers. Totalitarians don't look kindly on disruptive tech like that.

In regard to the poetry comment. Poets can easily change what they write (since they're nothing but glorified greeting card salesmen or jingle writers, despite their "depth" of thought), but engineers have an extremely rough time under tyranny. Tyrants don't give a fig if their slogan is optimal, but scream about weapons' performance, or their latest attempt at placing hi-tech bugs on their enemies. The Russian rocket engineer Sergei Korolev was horrified both by what he was put through and what he was forced to put others through. If a geek doesn't perform under a totalitarian regime death is the usual outcome. A poet can always delay, claiming to be waiting for appropriate inspiration. A poet can write utter flattering crap that will please the man in power, but if an engineer's plane can't fly he's complete toast.

On a related thought, how does skill at rhyming words translate into foreign policy expertise? Would poets choose never to oppose the House of Orange because nothing rhymes? I'm now looking for a substitute for my local paper asking geo-political questions of a local poet. Wouldn't we be better informed by the local scrabble champion, who has a greater master of verbal arcana?

Rhyming words and seeing into the soul like Shakespeare did are as different as painting a logo on an airplane versus designing an airplane.

I'd be willing to be that dimly lit nightclub was Dubs on 13th street, yes?
You reminded me of an old lesson that I learned some years ago with much pain: We all forget what great things we as individuals and as a group of Americans are capable of. Sometimes it takes tragedy to rekindle that passion to accomplish something great & good. It could be a heartbreaking divorce, death of a loved one or an event like September 11th, 2001. That flame of courage burns in all of us, some brighter than others and all it takes is a fanning to rekindle the spirit. That sprit seems to burn the brightest in those who are not native to America, but come from some land of oppression where their flame was smothered. We as Americans seem to take the flame for granted, none the less, when reminded of what being an American is about, that flame is fanned and we rise to the occasion. It is good to have a reminder from time to time whether it is in a moving essay or a shocking tragedy. Thanks for the reminder.

Damn! Takes me back to being a 19 year old Marine, with a bayonet fixed to an M16, truly believing none of us were going to survive the day, and the perfect clarity of understanding what REALLY matters. Thanks, Bill. you helped me remember most of what I have forgotten in the intervening years of "education". If you ever wander into houston, I would like to invite you over for some vodka.

this article was stirring, so deep, so real, so moving.... I am totally blown away by your writing AND I'VE ONLY READ 2 THINGS FROM YOU SO FAR!! Divine intervention surely led me to stumble across this site! I feel stupid adding a comment to the many praiseful ones already listed...what the hell could I possibly say....but you're writing compells me to say something! words hardly express how good your article is! How did you get to be so talented!! son of a bitch!! I can't even write the correct year on a check much less write an essay like you!! I love it!! Keep up the compelling work!



An amazing essay! The ending better than most fiction I've ever read - made my stomach knot up.
I've now read War, Confidence and Courage (in that order) - I didn't think you could outdo War, but there you are. From one writer to another, I admire and envy your gift, sir. I'll be right there in line when your book comes out. I'd thank you to autograph my copy, when the time comes.

You cement in me thoughts of pride - dare I say - courage and patriotism, and your words purge from me the doubt and fear that come with living in this time in history and part of the world (NYC, where we still hurt so much).

I look forward to exploring your archive and your further thoughts.



This is the second piece of yours that I've read. Keep up the great work!

Regarding Starship Troopers: Get the DVD and listen to the director's commentary. He actually felt that he was making an anti-fascist statement in the movie. At least that is what he was saying after the various criticisms of the movie had been made. As noted, the movie bore the same title as the book by Heinlein, but that was probably the most striking similarity between the two. A second movie of Dune was made that was much truer to the book, and I hope that someone does the same for Starship Troopers.

- Jay

Wow, I can't believe you removed every comment that didn't fawn over your essay! Censorship is a great ego-booster. Way to be a hero. Hope it helps you get your book deal.

Oops! My bad, please disregard above vitriol. Heh heh. I thought this was the CONFIDENCE thread. The link to CONFIDENCE feedback can't be found anywhere though, is this a technical glitch?

"Courage" was the best essay I've ever read. The writing is superb, but the sense of emotion lifts the essay to greatness. Thanks.

theres a certain man in iraq whos an example of what happens when your confidence runs a little high.say what you liike.

I sit here at my computer speechless and in awe of this beautiful piece of writing. Thank you, Bill, for sharing your gorgeous gift of writing with all of us. May this magnificent piece serve as but a minor tribute to all the brave people who put their lives on the line for the furthering of science and knowledge in our society.

Absolutely beautiful, Bill. As others have said, this essay has brought some closure to the loss. Thanks for the incredible insight into the joy of flight, especially for someone who's always wanted to fly. I believe that the crews of the Challenger and Columbia, if given another chance, would gladly strap on the bullet and fly again.

"In the dreams of those who knew her,
Columbia flies again
The oceans of night and cold starlight
Beyond the knowledge of men."

Wonderful, awesome prose. Thank you.


This has to be some of the best content I have come across on the web in a very long time.

Thank you.

Nathan Frith

Awesome essay! As an aspiring writer, I can see I have a long way to go to match anything you have written. I am also a pilot living in Fort Worth and just by chance saw the shuttle that fateful morning. I could not believe my eyes.

Mister, you have a gift. A lot of people here have congratulated you on this gift. Don't waste it!

I have read each of your essays, and I found them all inspiring, and full of truth, or at least the "truth" that I feel, seeing the same events, with different eyes and a different set of experiences.

Others have said, "write a book." Maybe you've already written a book, under this or another name. If so, what is it? If not, I say, forget the book, and just keep writing for this space. Don't mess with success! Plus, I can read your stuff for free, which is the best bargain on the internet.

Looking forward to your next rant.

That was an awesome essay. I would like to share a golden memory of Columbia with you, if I may.

I earned the Navy "Wings of Gold" on December 18th, 1980. My father was a retired Navy pilot and he "winged" me on the fortieth anniversary of the day he graduated from "Boot Camp" at Naval Recruit Depot, Norfolk, Virginia. That is one of those things that you remember for life. Another of those defining moments in my life was the day four months later that I saw Columbia lift off on her first mission.

There was a fifty mile exclusion radius around the Cape, so I was flying a race track pattern about 55 miles out at 9,500 feet in a Piper Arrow that I had rented from the NAS Pensacola Navy Flying Club. The weather was hazy and I could not see the coastline. I had my doubts that mission STS-1 would go, but I hung around. I tuned in the ADF to an AM radio station in or near Cocoa Beach, not as a navaid, but to hear the countdown. As it became obvious that the countdown was continuing in spite of the haze, I climbed to try to break out of the goo into the clear.

As the countdown neared T minus four minutes, I hit blue sky at 15,000 feet. Now, I didn't have supplemental oxygen, but I was NOT going to miss this launch, and I had backpacked to the summit of Mount Whitney without feeling hypoxic (at least when I wasn't hiking up the trail). So, I decided I could fly at this altitude for a few minutes without any undue risk. Nevertheless, I felt as though I'd had two fast drinks at Happy Hour at the Officers' Club at Pensacola on a Friday afternoon; still well in control, but feeling good.

When Columbia lifted off, the first thing I saw was a dimple in the haze, which must have been all that superheated gas punching a hole in it. This doughnut hole quickly spread to become several miles in diameter. And out of that hole came Columbia climbing heavenward like the proverbial homesick angel. She rolled and the shuttle was underneath her. This worried me, because I did not know much about the shuttle's design parameters and flight characteristics. Navy flight training demanded everything I had to give for about a year and a half, and I put everything else on the back burner.

Then I heard the word "nominal", and I knew this was normal and expected behavior for the shuttle. Now, they trained us at Pensacola to be cool, calm, and collected in flight, even under a _lot_ of stress. However, the sheer exaltation of seeing Columbia climbing towards the heavens hit me and produced one of those transcendental moments that one sometimes feels if one is truly blessed.

I found myself coolly, calmly, and collectedly screaming at the top of my lungs, "Go, you great big beautiful bastard!! GO!!!" and I would have given every material possession I owned or would ever own to have been aboard her at that moment.

Then, after Columbia was out of sight, I turned away from the Cape and descended to a landing at "Frank Brown's Seaplane Base". There I finished earning the single engine seaplane add-on to my FAA commercial pilot's license that afternoon.

All in all, it was quite a day.

I felt somewhat the same when I came across Jordin Kare's song, "Fire In The Sky". Science fiction writer Poul Anderson's wife, Karen, told me a few weeks ago that Jordin is a physicist at Lawrence Livermore Labs.

Jordin wrote a song about the history of spaceflight that perfectly expresses my feelings about Space Shuttle Columbia and Space Shuttle Challenger before it. I have taken the liberty of inserting a verse at the appropriate place to update the lyrics. The song is published by "Prometheus Music" of San Francisco, California.

Buzz Aldrin was reading the first verse when he started crying on a national news feed. It was the last line of the first verse that did him in. Me too, and I'm not ashamed to say it.

A rock history of manned space exploration.


Label: Prometheus Music
Credits: Song by Jordin Kare (bridge by Kristoph Klover.) Lead Vocals & Keyboard: Kristoph Klover. Bass: John Land. Drums: Curt Moore. Electric Guitar: Mark Ungar. Violin: Shira Kammen


Prometheus, they say, brought God's fire down to man.
And we've caught it, tamed it, trained it since our history began.
Now we're going back to heaven just to look him in the eye,
and there's a thunder 'cross the land, and a fire in the sky.

Gagarin was the first, back in nineteen sixty-one,
When like Icarus, undaunted, he climbed to reach the sun.
And he knew he might not make it, for it's never hard to die.
But he lifted off the pad and rode a fire in the sky.

Yet a higher goal was calling, and we vowed we'd reach it soon.
And we gave ourselves a decade to put fire on the moon.
And Apollo told the world, we can do it if we try:
And there was one small step, and a fire in the sky.

I dreamed last night of a little boy's first spaceflight,
Turned into me, watching a black and white TV.
There was a fire in the sky, I'll remember until I die.
A fire in the sky...a fire in the sky!

Then two decades from Gagarin, twenty years to the day.
Came a shuttle named Columbia, to open up the way.
And they said she's just a truck, but she's a truck that's aiming high.
See her big jets burning, see her fire in the sky.

Yet the Gods do not give lightly of the powers they have made.
And with Challenger and seven, once again the price is paid.
Though a nation watched her falling, yet a world could only cry.
As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky.

Addendum by Rodger Morris:

Then we paid the price once more, when Columbia went down.
There was fire in the heavens; she lay in pieces on the ground.
And we mourned the seven heroes, those who dared to fly her high.
And disaster shall not stop us, see our fire in the sky!!

End addendum:

Now, the rest is up to us, and there's a future to be won.
We must turn our faces outward, we will do what must be done.
For no cradle lasts forever, every bird must learn to fly ---
And we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky.

Yes, we're going to the stars, see our fire in the sky!
There's a fire in the sky, I'll remember until I die.
A fire in the sky, a fire in the sky!



Thank you for sharing such an important part of your life with us.

First 'History' and now this. I think you should put a warning up on your blog to let your readers know not to read more than one essay a day. Otherwise we'll spend too much time wiping our eyes and writing you e-mails to get anything done.

But seriously, thank you for helping to remember what being an American means.

Simply amazing. I just found this site. I'll be back.

This is like the 5th time I have read this article, I think this your best!!!

I give this article to everybody I can, it is truely touching.

You are truely a good hearted American!!! I would be proud to call you my friend.

The original Shuttle design also had a real mission, as a true "shuttle", building and delivering to Skylab and then to the Space Station that was originally supposed to be up by the late 1970s. Pity Congress ran out of balls on that one and forced redesign after redesign -- I have a strong suspicion that all their "cost-saving" reanalyses ended up costing more than it would to build the thing on its original design. And we'd have had the Station two decades sooner. When they start relaxing the vision requirements for astronauts, by the way, you might want to duck if you're behind me and the line to sign up. :-) Though I confess to only having a VFR ticket at the moment.

A friend sent me a link to your site , I have now read all your essays but I had to tell you my feelings on this one.
I was brought up by an Old World Italian father who hammered in me that "men don't cry". I didn't cry when he died 23 years ago. I couldn't cry when my grandparents died 15 years ago.
I read your article 10 minutes ago and for the first time in 27 years I had tears in my eyes and you know what?

I wouldn’t have traded that moment for the moon.

Thank you for the gift you have given us with your words.

You are dead on that the target is our courage but it is important to recognize how anti-American elements are going about the job.
Political correctness and the earasure of the line between right and wrong and good and evil are the techniques employed. The idea is that it is impossible to have the courage of your convictions if you have no convictions.
I believe it is the clarity of leaders like Reagan and GW Bush, who recognize the difference, that has enflamed so many of these types to a degree of rage that reveals their so called peacful motives for what they are. Their work is far from done but like brainwash victims, we were just starting to question ourselves when two very important things happened: 9/11 and the election of Bush. 9/11, as you said, showed we still have courage and Bush led with unmistakable conviction that this was an evil deed.
For the PC America haters, socialists, Marxist and whatever else crowd, 9/11 wasn't the disaster. It was the interuption of their work. A little while longer, they said, and Americans would have the required doubt, about themselves and their country. When they no longer know right from wrong, good from evil or otherwise adopt a secular huminist attitude, they will have all the conviction required of any hihlist, which is to say none save none, save none.... and just as much courage.


It is said (ok, is not just said...that you put a frog in slowly heated water, it'll never jump out. The poor amphibian just compares its suffering as only marginally more than pain it builds on. Or it assumes the shock of cold would kill it. Thus it creates an argument against saving its own life.

As your heartwarming story about the club shows, it's those that risk the cold (rejection) that survive the heat.

I, unlike the hapless frog, would rather burn a candle bright and fast, than risk having it sputter out.

We don't want our men [or me, insert random civilian] die for our country, but we Americans will fight for our right to do so. You would. And so would I. Long live America, the lighthouse in the world of storms.

Thank you for sharing this - I can't believe I'd missed it before. I just used up the last Kleenex at my desk...

I had already done my first barrel roll in my stepdad's Piper at the age of 6 and decided that I was going to be one of the first women fighter pilots (I grew up next to Edwards AFB) when we found out that I was severely nearsighted and it wouldn't get better. I was crushed. I am still crushed that I'll never be able to fly a fighter, but I'm thinking I should at least see if there's somewhere I could hitch a ride, just once - and take another look at getting a private license. Life's too short not to try.

A fine tribute!
Let's petition this to be mandatory Berkley reading!

Semper Fi.

In reiteration of what everyone else has said, that was the most beautiful thing I've ever read. I'm just barely starting my career in the Air Force. Even though there are many hurdles ahead, some of which I may not clear, I promise to live up to those standards of courage. I think I can say the same for my fellow comrades in arms. Thank you immeasurably for writing this.
John J. Kostelnik

Bill, I want to be a pilot now.

Thank you for an inspiring view of things we shall look for in our lives. Your essay reminded me of certain essential truths about life.

Beauty, while I am just about to enter high school, you have reminded me why I have decided to become a pilot. I doubt you will ever read this, but bravo, bravo, bravo. Allow me to pause as I wipe my eyes.


Just wanted to echo the above positive comments, and to tell you that your writing is damn near transcendent...OK, so it IS transcendent, in the sense that it trumpets loud and clear the reasons that this country and its people who believe in it are the absolute best the world has to offer. I am grateful to you for everything you write, and every word you type gives me more courage and resolve to fight the terrorists, cowards, socialist filthy stinking Commies, and everyone else who would do us harm. Keep up the good work sir :)!

How do you write like that? I couldn't do anything that good if I put a hundred lifetimes into it.

Wow. I never understood all of that "she' stuf until Now. I always feel like i have a goal in life, to go to Mars. I hope they name the firstt ships to land on Mars, Columbia and Challenger.

A great essay! I was looking for something written on courage. Thanks.
It would look great in my Journal. I would take only the credit for knowing something good when I saw it.
Best wishes,
Bruno G. Just, Editor, Australian Gestalt Journal.

Thank you so much.

Early in the essay, you connected courage to love.
Herewith an example.
In WW II, my father, an Infantry platoon leader, had a patrol out. Coming back, something came and hit one of the guys in the head. He would clearly die, but not quite yet. My father sent the rest of the patrol back and stayed with the mortally wounded man. Upon hearing what had happened, the medic came out toward their position. Just as he reached them, he was hit and killed by machine gun fire.
Eventually, the first wounded man died and my father prepared to try to roll over and retrieve his carbine. He would have, being disoriented, set off toward German lines. But another guy from his platoon had come out looking for him, thus saving his life.
No regulations could make these three men do what they did. Only love.
While I've enjoyed watching the Blue Angels, I always figured, during my Infantry service, that flying was merely a way to get to work. So I don't find the transcendence some of you do in flight, but I do applaud the discussion of courage.

Fuck the professors with shriveled souls.

I know a little about spending 16 hour days studying a pile of phone books with the hope of one day reaching your dream.

I was only a reactor operator but those who go down to the sea in ships know. I'm lucky as hell I have a brother in law who knows. A wife who understands.

I wanted submarines but like Bill my eyes couldn't cut it. So I took my three dimensional dream to two. And I was happy as hell. Because I got to go where only the best tread. Not as good as my dream of space but damn good.

Thanks Bill.

I was directed here to this site by a friend, and I am grateful that he shared this treasure with me.

As I dried my eyes and read along, line by line, each word burned into my brain, painting a visual picture of the event being described. I see and hear the fighter jets, I see the clouds sprinkled in the clear sky, I see an awe-struck child's eyes following the trails of red, white and blue as they streak across his field of vision in a flourish.

This piece of work really touches the inner core of my soul, not because I have relatives who serve, but because I work with people who serve and I have always respected the military since I was little. I have marveled over the great things they do for us everday while others take it all for granted. They do much more than fight and train. They have to leave their families with few hours notice, they move constantly, they study, they prepare, they are willing to sacrifice themselves for me, and for my country. I always wondered how people can be so aloof about that.

Last but not least, you are an exceptional writer, and I will look to your site for motivation when I feel writer's block coming on. Writing is very important to me, and it's a lawyer's tool (which is what I plan to become). Thank you for inspiring me and keep up the amazing job. You illustrate your points very well and for that I must commend you.

very good essay but how does your definition of courage not apply to hitler? THe big point is love and that one who is courageous does not purposely flirt with danger. Hitler clearly loved his country, how can you say that he is not courageous along the lines of a MLK JR? maybe there's more to "courage" in your essay then i'm seeing, can someone help me out with the definition and how hitler does not apply?

Thank you.

-A 15-year old kid

I searched the web for a way to finish a conclusion on an essay I am writing for my English class and I stumbled upon this. I'm very glad I did, although I'm sitting in a puddle of tears.

Great job, sir.

Charles, Napoleon High School, 11th grade

Bill, thank you for the great essay. You have a fabulous writing style and your words really convey the thoughts and sights you are sharing with us. I am jealous and hate you for it. I hope that is sufficient praise.

“Courage” helped me to answer a question I had about many on the left who are so abhorrent of war and the military. The question really came to me several years ago when Saving Private Ryan came out in the theater.

See, for years you would hear critics scorn any war-films less dark and sinister as “Apocalypse Now” because it wasn’t “real”. War films (John Wayne’s, or any others not portraying the U.S. military a mindless, raping savages) glossed over the horrors and bloodshed of war; they glorified combat, they made it seem fun or exciting.

Then, Saving Private Ryan comes out and gives a realistic, bloody, horrific portrayal of combat. So realistic, audiences in general are stunned and even some actual military veterans are traumatized. Here is a film that shows what it would be like to actually fight in a war, to risk almost certain death or horrific mutilation, to watch friends die suddenly and painfully, and to become so enraged/numb that human life seems less/more precious than you could have ever thought. I am a “gung-ho” reader of military (especially WWII), I love war games including 3D shooters (the more realistic the better), love the military as an institution, really enjoy war films in general, and this film made me feel one thing overall.

“Thank God this wasn’t me! How would I have done that? How the HELL did these guys do this?! THANK CHRIST THEY DID THIS!!!”

For just a few minutes, I was on that landing craft on Normandy beach, and before that door even dropped and the MG fire began, I wanted to get off. I felt trapped, I felt this insane! I fully comprehended the reality of onrushing mortality tearing at me at 600 rounds a minute or dropping from above in high explosive bursts. What would it be? Sudden oblivion? Searing pain before death? Or perhaps a cold, dark drowning in the Channel surf? Me, gung-ho-combat-military-history-shoot-em-up guy, wants OUT! Right freaking now!

So, seems the movie was pretty good at conveying the reality of combat I would think, finally, right Mr. and Mrs. critic on the left? Good movie?

Nope. Instead…

“Too bloody!”
“A gore-fest.”
“Pornographically violent” (actual quote from one critic)

Strangely, the critics feel the film is TOO realistic, and that by being so it was intending to arouse our lust for blood while dulling us to the intense violence. They give it a bad or at best a luke-warm review. Doesn’t matter that audiences flock to it, even knowing it ain’t Ace Ventura. Bad, realistically-portrayed, movie! Bad!

What gives? Well, I think it goes back to courage. These critics are so frightened, so humbled by the sacrifice and daring of these men, presented to them in vivid sight and sound, that they are ashamed. They are ashamed because they have gotten a mere glimpse, the most ephemeral a taste of what real combat is like, and they realize they couldn’t, wouldn’t, do it, even to defeat an evil like the Third Reich. They are children of the 60’s, or the children of those children, and every war is Vietnam and everyone who has ever carried a gun did something wrong and if we had just talk things out none of this carnage would have been necessary because after all the best way not to have wars is to not have enemies…

They couldn’t handle the fact that there ARE occasions where wars are necessary, where holding and using a gun is the right thing to do, and that there are things more important than dying or having to kill. They shrink from that realization because it reveals them to be soft, and small and cowardly. They ask themselves the same questions I ask myself when I read about a terrible battle, or see it rendered so horribly well on screen, or watch every damn day on the evening news; “Could I have done this? Would I have done this?”

Real men and woman are out there, overseas, fighting and dying and critics of all sorts are coming out of the woodwork, telling us how wrong they are, how terrible this all is. They tell us how toppling dictators, spreading human rights and democracy and hunting down murderers is such a colossal mistake. Nothing is worth having soldiers or civilians being killed over there in the hundreds, not even the killing of civilians in the thousands here or in the MILLIONS, there.

Don’t get me wrong. I have never been in combat, and it looks like I might never be. I do not think for a moment that for all my reading and research and simulations, that I have a REAL appreciation of it is like. However, I believe I know enough to appreciate the sacrifice and courage of those that did, and I honor them for it. I honor them by respecting what they have done, and acknowledging what their sacrifice paid for. I also realize that I might be called upon at any moment to face up to such a challenge anyway.

I work in New York City. It’s a big, tempting target nowadays. Everyday my train goes into a dark tunnel under water. Someday I might now come out. Ever been to Penn Station? Poison gas would be a disaster down there during rush hour.

When I ask myself those questions, “Could I have done this? Would I have done this?” I am at least able to say, “God, I don’t know, but I hope so, because it might come to that. There are things more important than just my own skin, right?”

These critics, like many others of their kind, refuse entertain the thought, because the answer that they would give would be, “No. Nothing is worth that.” And in that they find their shame, because they are people that let evil run rampant in the world.

that was a real great story and it was breathtaking and it takes a lot of guts to go up in space

Inspirational, informative and timeless. I followed a link from /. and found a treasure. Thank you.

Great Commentary. I am just a Special Ops Non-commisioned sargeant who serves daily alongside many who feel as I do. We dont call it courage we call it the right thing to do. I have served in both Afganistan and Iraq with a couple tours in each, I have seen with own eyes those going above and beyond the call of duty. I will never fly a plane but we all feel free in our own way maybe every time I show up for a static line parachute jump. You may call it courage but I call it doing what needs done in other words the right thing to do. Please continue to write!


Damn. I don't know what to say, except don't stop writing.

God bless you, man.


thank you.
ur essay is GREAT!
probably the best essay i've ever read?
no surprise if ur essay is well-liked by others huh???

-A 13-year old teenage

wow guess ima a little late cus this essay was made awhile back but i figured id comment anyway. I was bored just putting random words into google seeing if i could find anything worth reading and damn that was the best thing i've read in months. I loved all of it especially the part about the clouds materializing on the wing of the plane. Well don't have much else to say just thanks for writing this.

I'm a new-comer to the site, so I just read this for the first time.
Brilliant...thank you!

umm... that was amazing. people don't really talk that way anymore. really touching; I think that reading this writing has been one of those 'big' moments.

That's what I admire about soldiers, firemen, astronauts, and any in their caliber. They do what is right; not because it is easy, but because it is right. They have the hope to do the right thing even if it costs them their lives.

I teach a virtual class for Michigan Virtual High School. I am developing a unit on Courage for ninth grade English and would like to include in my course your section on courage--about the first 20 or 21 paragraphs. May I have permission to include your comments on courage in my course? Thank you.

Sir, I was searching Google Images for a picture to depict courage. I thought about rock climbing, which seemed very shallow to me in light of all the heroes we have. I thought of Christopher and Dana Reeves, of 9/11 victims and survivors, and how I could possibly reduce such a huge tragedy for my project and appropriately convey my message. Becoming dispirited, I switched from pictures to the web and came to your post. I was so moved. I don't know who you are or what you have achieved in your life but in this heart of mine tonight you have encouraged my heart beyond my ability to describe. Your description of your experience in flight when you came to no longer fear death struck a chord in me as if I were there with you. I cannot thank you enough for sharing this with all of us. I have a teenage son who will appreciate this as I have and so I thank you from him as well. I want to read more of your writings. Where can I find them? Thank you again. So very much, thank you. And, may I link this article to my website?

I have been looking for words for 9 years now to say at my father's funeral. He died in 1998... and he was a life long pilot, and the only National Guardsman to fly the S-R 71. One of his jobs was to fly damaged or decommissioned aircraft to their final resting places or to be repaired. Later he was a flight instructor for the Lear Jet, and later still a freight pilot. He died of cancer, a horrible death on the ground. While I was afraid as a kid, I had nightmares about his plane falling apart in the sky... I think in retrospect that would have been better than what he actually went through.

At the time, I was only able to use quotes from "Johnathan Livingston Seagull" a book that my father gave me for my 9th birthday, and was the first spirituality that struck a chord with me. I read it to him on his death bed. This was after he'd thrown me out of the family. It was the last time I saw him alive.
He died while I was asleep, but mom let me close his eyes in the morning.

Further, I spent most of my time growing up in Las Cruces, NM. This is about 40 miles from Alamagordo, NM, and many of my fellow grade schoolers' parents were working on the space program. In fact, my best friend worked in the ANEX at NASA, and took me to work along with his daughter to meet some of the brains behind working on the shuttle, as well as those who went to helped with Pathfinder. So at our elementary school, everything stopped and we watched the Challenger take-off on TV. Us kids knew the people who helped make it happen. It was like a family event, as the computer components were tested by my best friend's dad, etc. Us 4th graders watched Challenger explode in real time. It broke my heart. I can't speak to how disilusioned I became, how bitter about human progress.
Thanks for helping me to finally face that, to finally put words in place of the vague feelings I knew instinctually but couldn't put words on or believe in.

*NOW* I understand what my dad was trying to tell me all those years ago. Now I get it. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

I had the pleasure of meeting Rick Husband when he was still flying things for the USAF. It was at my wifes HS Reunion. They had been high school friends. Sang in Choir Together.

I can tell you from talking with him, from listening to my wife talk about him, that you hit his behaviour right on the money.

He was strong of mind, strong of faith, and would have been strong in the face of death.

I know the article was not about him, but he was, by action, by attitude, a true American Hero.