February 23, 2003


One night, I was sitting in a nightclub ' maybe the first or second time I'd ever done so. I was just a puppy ' eighteen, I think, for we could drink in those days. Anyway, it was a strange room: mostly concentric circles of dark tables arranged around a center, but the center wasn't a dance floor ' that was off to the side. The middle of the room was just much better lit ' almost like an auto showroom.

And right there in the center, in a small pool of light, sat a woman in a white dress, all alone. Calling her 'beautiful' is like calling Yosemite 'scenic.' She was stunning. Grace Kelly beautiful. Catherine Deneuve beautiful. Plato wrote about how a chair was really just a dim shadow on the cave wall cast by the ideal of a chair. Well, this woman was the Real Deal. And there she sat, all alone, lighting up that room, maybe ten feet away from where my three buddies and I burrowed behind a dark table, nothing showing but our little red eyes darting back and forth like the terrified little weasels I thought we all were at the time.

I was about to learn a very powerful lesson. Wait, I want to rephrase that: I was about to be given a very powerful lesson. I didn't actually learn it for another ten or fifteen years. But the next ten minutes were nothing if not an education'

As I sat there, nursing my watery Screwdriver, I watched an absolutely endless progression of guys make that walk across that little patch of open space, sidle up next to her, and start talking. They never got past the first sentence. They didn't get shot down. They got nuked. Vaporized. One second they were there, the next there was nothing but a greasy stain on the floor where they had been.

And these guys were real smooth, too. Real Rico Suave. They had the wide lapels and the platform shoes and the qiana shirts (and may 1977 Miami burn in hell forever). These were not bumpkins like myself. These were operators.

Now most of you are old and wise enough to remember how the adolescent mind works, because the more she turned these guys down the more beautiful she became to me. It was like that old Twilight Zone shot where the corridor expands away from you as you run towards the door at the end. Remote. Unattainable. Ahhhhhhhh.

I could just barely hear her, too.

Would you like to Dance?

No, I wouldn't. Please go away, you're bothering me.


'often followed by a mumbled what a bitch as they slinked back in shame to face their friends. I thought, she's just here to break hearts is all. She's not here to dance, or to have fun. She's just here to crush people.

At that moment, I can say with confidence that I would rather have gone over the top at Gallipoli then walk across that ten foot expanse of lighted floor.

But I had a friend who was watching too, and he wasn't getting intimidated. He was getting angry. He was, like me, young, kinda dorky, and dressed, shall we say, more conventionally than the rest of the peacocks in the room. But as my eyes were glazing over in teenage awe, his were narrowing to slits as the Endless Parade of the Doomed walked into the meat grinder.

Finally, he had had enough. How did I divine this? Well, he shot to his feet, and muttered 'That's enough!' through clenched teeth. That was my clue.

He threw down his napkin, took a belt of his drink, and worked his way around our table heading straight for the fluffy wittle bunny wabbit with the Sharp. Pointy. Teeth. I remember I damn near grabbed at his legs, like a wounded Confederate begging a comrade not to advance on the withering fire coming down from Cemetery Ridge. No Jim, don't do it! I was thinking. No one can take that hill. It's death to try!

He walked up behind her, and so help me, he tapped her on the shoulder. I covered my face with my hand. She took a good long moment to turn around, too. She stared at him, the white wine in her hand just about the same color as her hair, and those cold blue eyes slowly looking up from his crappy shoes, past the rumpled pants to the okay shirt and finally right into Jim's eyes. She didn't say a word.

'Would you like to dance?'

Instantly: 'No, I would not like to dance. I would like for you to go away.' She turned back around without another word and took a sip of her wine. I heard a few people chuckle behind me.

Jim started walking, but instead of coming back to the Loser's Circle, he went around to the front of her small cocktail table. No, Jim! Nooooooo! And then he leaned forward, so he was a few inches from her face. And then he said something that burned itself so deep into my addled brain that I never forgot it, and never will. And he said it loud enough so that everyone could hear him, too. He said:

'Listen Princess, I just got off the phone. Turns out Prince Charming's horse just threw a shoe, so he's gonna be a little late tonight. Now why don't you stop showing everyone how miserable you are, put down that drink and come dance with me?'

She stared at him for a moment. And then she smiled. And then that's exactly what she did.

The three of us left about an hour later. Jim and The Vision had strolled out together after about ten minutes on the dance floor. Nothing much to stay for after a show like that.

Next time you look at the moon, challenge yourself to think of something: there are footprints up there. Footprints, and tire tracks. Also three used cars, and one golf ball.

Why are they there? Because we decided to go to the moon, that's why. What a typically arrogant, unilateral, American conceit! But you know what? That footprint ' you know the picture ' will still be there, unchanged, a million years from now. In ten million years, it might begin to soften a little around the edges. But in a billion years ' a thousand million summers from this one ' it will still be there, next to glistening pyramids of gold and aluminum junk decaying under the steady cosmic drizzle of micrometeorite hits.

Eventually, in about five billion years, the sun will run out of hydrogen and start burning helium. When it does, it will begin to swell, consuming Mercury, then Venus as it enters its Red Giant phase. The forests will burn to ash, the oceans boil into steam and then be blown into deep space along with the rest of the atmosphere. Life will have been long gone.

But on the moon, there will remain six scraps of colored cloth. Red and white stripes peeking out from the dull grey lunar soil; perhaps a star or two on a faded blue field as the sun reaches out to reclaim her children. Very likely they will be the last, best preserved monuments to our presence as a species on the face of the third planet now burning to a cinder below.

But eventually, they will burn too. The sun will contract to a white dwarf, the inner solar system nothing but black cinders, the outer planets shrunken and frozen corpses. Perhaps fifteen billion years from now, a time as far in the future as time goes into the past, there will be nothing here except a burnt-out and cold white dwarf.

But somewhere out there, somewhere, there will be four battered, unrecognizable hunks of aluminum and titanium and gold, spinning through deep space, their names recalling the spirit in which they were hurled into the abyss: Pioneer, and Voyager. And the day before the Universe dies, you'll still be able to dimly make out the stripes and star-spangled square, and read the words in the ancient language, from a dead race in the far distant past, when the stars were young and alive: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.

There are at least five nations on the earth that had the technical skill, not to mention the money, to do something as grand and noble ' as immortal -- as this. Yet only one has done so. Why us? Why not them?

Confidence. That's why.

We are a strong nation. We'd damn well better be, because we carry the genes and mythologies of the most confident individuals on the planet, people unwilling to endure repression, persecution and enslavement by taking a chance on a place unknown to them, except perhaps in their dreams. We have come from every country in the world, from the free and prosperous to the hellish and horrific. Each individual immigration, from the native Indians crossing the Bering Strait, through Plymouth Rock, Ellis Island and LAX ' each one an act of optimism and hope for something better.

And we are a confident nation. Indeed, the quality that is admired by friend and foe alike, more than any other, is our optimism, our sense of hope for the future. We may be condemned overseas for our many flaws, but it's hard to argue with an optimist who is willing to roll up his sleeves. And when we, as a nation, decide to do something'it gets done. We sometimes fail. We pay the price, fix the failures, and go on.

Footsteps on the moon.

Optimism and confidence colors everything we touch, from our movies and music to our skyscrapers and Space Telescopes. How else to explain the universal appeal of The American Dream, for that dream is indeed universal: freedom, safety, prosperity ' and scores of other adjectives that can be summed up in that jaunty phrase, unheard of in a political document: the Pursuit of Happiness.

It is difficult for we Americans to fully grasp the effect we have on the world's psyche, to understand the depth to which American culture has permeated the globe. We dominate the political, economic, military, scientific and cultural spheres as no nation has done before us. This influence is quite invisible to the average American, because it is simply an extension of the institutions we are familiar with at home. We think nothing of seeing McDonald's or posters for The Matrix in Singapore, or Kiev, or Rio de Janeiro.

But imagine a landscape where, let us say, France had the same cultural impact on our shores: La Baguette restaurants on every corner, long lines around the multiplex to see Jules et Jim 2000, French troop transports idling down Interstate 10 in long convoys, French fighters flying to and from French air bases set out in the middle of former farmland, television filled with dubbed French sitcoms named Mon Dieu! and Les Amis, and everywhere on the news nothing but reports of what the French government was doing and how it was going to affect us.

Okay, stop imagining ' this is like huffing paint; you can feel the brain cells dying. But this is the effect we have, and there are forces at work in the world, forces besides Islamic Terrorism who would like to see nothing so much as a confident, determined United States taken down a peg. Or two. Or twenty.

These are hard times, psychologically, to be a person who loves America. Hard because we do, indeed, wish to be liked by the rest of the world. Hard because we know in our hearts that we are good people, decent people who do not leap for joy at the chance to spill the blood of our own children and spend untold treasure just to have the hateful, pornographic thrill of seeing brown people blown to bits.

Yet we are accused of exactly this, and worse. We hear of polls saying that upwards of 75% of countries like England and France see the United States as the greatest danger to the world, and it knocks the wind out of us. No, that can't be right. Can it? Can they really believe that?

Some do. Many do.

Some of this emotion is genuine, real fear and panic brought on by our unparalleled success, and our past miscalculations and blunders. Some of it is envy, pure and simple. Some is driven by pain, the pain of lost greatness and glory. Some is projection, a sense of how tempting it might be to hold such power, from countries with histories of real empires, real governors, and real subjugation.

And some of it ' much of it ' is intentionally aimed at our decency, our sense of restraint and isolation, our desire to get back to our own happy and safe lives and turn our back on the world lost in the delusion that we long to possess it.

The protestors we have seen recently know this very well. They accuse us of being Nazis. We hear people from Berkeley and Santa Monica railing that they live in a Police State, no better than the one in Iraq. They claim we want nothing but oil, filthy lucre ' and ascribe to our determined action the most base motives they can devise: sheer profit. Diversion from economic woes. Racism. Paternal guilt. Bloodlust. The list goes on and on.

Like the terrorists we also face in these quietly desperate times, these people seek to attack us where we are the most vulnerable, and for the anti-American multitudes that means our confidence. They know as well as we do that if we were the cruel, bloodthirsty and vicious killers they claim us to be that they would all be dead in unmarked graves. Gandhi, after all, succeeded in freeing India because his non-violent strategy was aimed at the British ' another fundamentally decent and humane people. Had he tried this against Hitler or Stalin we would never have heard of him, for he would be yet another of the nameless, faceless millions taken away in the night, never to be seen again.

Knowing we are a moral people, knowing that we want above all else to do the right thing, knowing that the idea of invasion and war is a hateful and desperate last resort for us, they target their message to our conscience and confidence, little decency-seeking missiles like BUSH = HITLER, NO BLOOD FOR OIL and GIVE PEACE A CHANCE. These people know that the only thing capable of stopping a determined America is America herself. That is why our confidence is under attack in so many ways, and from so many sides.

Is it working?

It is.

There are many principled, patriotic Americans who are opposed to the Battle of Iraq. At least, I assume there are, for they are hard to pick out among some of the craven lunatics we have seen in the streets of the world these past few weeks and months.

I really shouldn't be so hard on these people, because many of them clearly mean well. They seem unable ' or perhaps unwilling -- to face the fact that history has passed them by. For today they are on the side of tyrants, rapists, torturers and mass murderers. Apparently, they'd rather be there than change their minds.

But there is a different class of protestor that we have seen recently, and these are not well-meaning people who only seek to avoid bloodshed. They are people like International ANSWER, supported by the Workers World Party, backed by North Korea, and these people are, to use a somewhat overused, even nostalgic phrase, nothing but lousy, stinking Commies.

You'd think I would be ashamed to use such a jingoistic, hackneyed clich' as 'lousy, stinking Commies.' I am not. Here is a philosophy that has killed no less than sixty million people outright, through executions, forced starvation, Gulags and Great Leaps Forward. They have drawn us into the most filthy fights in Asia, Africa and South America, led us to sully and permanently stain our national honor fighting nasty, brutal wars in God knows how many places, and driven us to back local thugs and dictators whose only redeeming value was their promise to stop this disease from spreading.

Like Islamic Fundamentalists, they are deeply deluded people in love with a fantasy ideology that promises them revenge and the spoils of revolution, rewards that they are unwilling to work for and incapable of generating. Claiming the moral cloak of Robin Hood, these people want to rob from the rich ' and keep it.

Those decent Americans who are doing a patriotic duty by protesting what they believe to be an unjust war do themselves and their cause incalculable harm by marching alongside these unreconstructed liars, nitwits and frauds. They are correct when they say that not all of them are anti-American, or Marxists, or both. But perhaps they can forgive us for getting this impression, as any look at these protests will reveal.

Look at the protest signs shreiking WELLSTONE WAS ASSASSINATED! and ONLY SOCIALIST REVOLUTION CAN END IMERIALIST WAR! These people are not protesting the war in Iraq. What they are interested in is crippling the US. They know they cannot confront us directly. They have no military assets now that the Soviet arsenal is rusting back into the ground. They certainly don't seem to have jobs, so they're not exactly an economic force. And everywhere their political views have been put into practice, the result has been spectacular: collapse and ruin in the best of cases, and repression, torture and mass murder in the worst.

These people are political, economic and cultural failures. They are losers. But they have a secret weapon. If they cannot attack us head on, in open daylight, then perhaps they can erode, decay, and rot our moral foundations slowly, imperceptibly. And they are doing this. And it is succeeding.

If large numbers of our own people can equate The President of the United States with Adolf Hitler, if we actually believe the US is the source of all the misery in the world, if we despise ourselves and our history and expect to be praised for it, if strength and morality and sureness of purpose can be openly mocked as ridiculous anachronisms, if our institutions can be spat upon, our flag burned and our ethics slandered ' if all of this can happen, in public, and we simply accept it, then something is indeed very wrong with our foundation and we had better start paying attention to it right quick while we can still save the building.

I'll tell you something. I'm glad they are marching. I'm delighted they are out in the open, on the street, waving signs like 9/11 WAS AN INSIDE JOB. Like the horrible attacks of September 11th, they have opened our eyes to a threat we have chosen to ignore for thirty years.

These people have launched a coordinated, full-frontal assault on our confidence, which is the reactor that powers all of our greatness, strength and success.

We must fight them. Our survival as a nation, as an idea of a nation, turns on this one battle. Because many of these people marching in the streets are simply shocked into silence when confronted with the evidence ' that we did not put Saddam Hussein into power, that liberal college kids like me had bumper stickers saying BUY IRAQI WAR BONDS supporting Saddam in his fight against the Mad Mullahs of Iran, that we do not have a design on Iraqi oil, that we will not enter Baghdad as conquerors, but rather as liberators, and that all of the Chomskyite lies and deceptions and half-truths that they try to string into a paper-Mache worldview do not hold up to fact and history.

We can argue these points until we are blue in the face. But the easiest way to convince these people is to simply have them ask an Iraqi, or a Cuban, or a Pole what it is like living in this vile pit of corruption called America. They may want to ask these questions behind safety glass, for the reaction to this kind of question from people who have known true misery and oppression is usually quite explosive, an outburst of rage and fury at the insult being leveled at them.

Because it is an insult. These people have lost their freedom, their property and their family members to real tyranny, real murderers, and real repression. They have lived in actual Police States. There is nothing rhetorical about the beatings they have endured. And to have a smug, clueless, morally blinded suburban American college student tell them that we live the same way is a mortal insult to their loss and suffering.

I used to wish that these gullible, pampered, anti-American Americans would go and live in a place like Iraq or Cuba or pre-liberation Poland -- and not as visiting American celebrities to be paraded around as Dictatorial propaganda pieces, but as common, nameless citizens. But that would be cruel of me, because likely we'd never see many of these people again. So I have modified my wish. I now only want them to spend a one-on-one evening with people who have risked their lives to escape such brutality, to see the depths of emotion and anger such bland and thoughtless lies engenders in them.

So for you people still against the Liberation of Iraq, you who claim that the People Spoke during the demonstrations, I have a single question for you:

During those protest marches, where were the Iraqis? There are many tens of thousands of these people living here and abroad. Seemingly to a person, they are passionately for intervention to free their countrymen and their relatives. If your theory is correct, they would be the loudest voices calling for peace and American withdrawal.

So I ask you again: Where are the Iraqis?

A year or two after I learned about confidence that night in the bar, I found myself on the stage of the Gainesville Little Theatre. I went to the audition to baby-sit a girlfriend who wanted a part. There were not enough men auditioning, so they asked me to just come up and read opposite the women. Just read from the book.

I got the lead role, she didn't get anything, and that little affair ended a remarkably short time later.

Anyway, there I was, in my one-and-only appearance acting on a stage, playing Tony Kirby in You Can't Take It With You, which, coincidentally, was the first live stage play I ever saw and which is one of the great American comedies of all time.

It was an early evening in November, 1980, during my sophomore year at the University of Florida. As we were getting into costume and make-up, we were making the usual plans to head out for beers after the show, and maybe watch some of the early Presidential election returns.

Just before we went on, a woman burst into the dressing room, sobbing hysterically. I wish I were making this up.

'Reagan's won! He won! My God, we're all going to die! "

'Wait, hold on, that can't be right. The polls just closed a few minutes ago. And that's just the east coast--.'

'He won, I tell you! Carter conceded! Oh my God, there's going to be a nuclear war!'

Even then, even at the height ' sorry ' the depth of my liberal thinking, I thought this was laying it on pretty thick. I didn't like Reagan, though. In fact, I couldn't stand him. I just thought he was old, wrinkled, feeble-minded and way, way out of touch with his retro patriotism and his idiotic smiling all the time.

See, I was twenty. I had it all sussed. We were a whole new generation, baby. The laws of physics do not apply to twenty year olds, let alone the lessons of history.

I knew nothing. What I learned about life under the Soviets I learned from Sociology Professors who had grown up in the same bland comfort and freedom I had. I was an idiot. They were idiots too. But! They should have known better! That's what we were paying them for.

Then, not long after, I met a friend who more than anyone, got me serious about writing. He was a Bulgarian poet and refugee, a man who risked his life sneaking across borders, hiding out in fields, eluding guards with orders to shoot him on sight. And this man was an intellectual, one of their best and brightest. He was a privileged victim, given access to good apartments, better shopping, even allowed access to western books and magazines. And that was their fatal mistake, you see? He knew what life was like in the west. And he risked that life ' the only life he had ' to come here.

That is where I unlearned the doubts and suspicions I had about my country, thoughts placed in my head by my own egotistical sense of rebellion against my parents and by professors with agendas of personal failure and eyes blinded by bitterness and rejection. That is where I learned, second hand, what life in real Police States was like from someone who bore the fear and anger and frustration and contempt on his face every time he talked of home; home being a laboratory of misery where even the smallest human deeds ' traveling, buying food ' were turned into thousands of little lessons in brutality and humiliation.

We fought against that philosophy. Did we win?

Well, the Soviets have gone. And as we learned not long ago, the memories of the nations freed from their shackles have not faded as fast as those of some of our so-called 'allies.' These recently liberated Eastern European nations respect and admire America for standing up to tyranny ' having the memory of tyranny fresh in your mind will do that to you.

On the other hand, those anti-American ideas, and their progenitors, have not gone away. They have prospered and multiplied in our colleges and universities, unbalanced by any effort to even the scales and let these competing ideas duke it out in the marketplace of free and vigorous debate. The tide of self-hatred, lies and slander has risen many, many times higher than I ever experienced in the early 1980s. That battle is still being fought. And we are not winning. In fact, we are in big trouble.

I have also noted that as these radical factions have gained traction in our universities, we have found our vision more and more hobbled, our ambitions more petty, and our hopes less noble and worthy of our effort. Back in the early '60s, during the run-up to the moon landing, NASA scientists were whispering the phrase Saturn by '70! Well, why not? Vision and confidence were the coin of the realm in those days. I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out in 1968, and thinking, Damn! Thirty years and that's all we can do? A 200 man revolving space station, regular Pan Am orbital service, and a single ship to Jupiter?

As an Apollo kid caught up in the head rush of visions coming true, and the most outrageous dreams unfolding on television in living color, I actually thought 2001: A Space Odyssey was way too conservative. Now here we are, a few years after that iconic date. It's been more than thirty years since we set foot on the moon. We have three men in a series of big boilers orbiting the earth. That's pretty much it.

But, we do have acid-washed jeans and reality TV.

What happened to the big dreams? In his famous Moon Message, President Kennedy said, 'We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things; not because they are easy, but because they are hard.'

Because they are hard. What happened to that loud, muscular, confident voice? What happened to that vision, that ability to see at our feet something invisible to others, far beyond the horizon? Where is our faith that a nation unlike any other can do great deeds, weld and rivet together the most daring and audacious dreams, and boldly go where no man has gone before?

Who else will do these things? If we take ourselves out of the vision business, when will we see the likes of the Moon Landing again, and by whom? The Chinese in 2016? Brazilians in 2054? Who? When?

Time sweeps all things back into the onrushing past. And we as a people have a decision to make: do we go forward, write new pages, and continue to swim upstream, or do we stop and dig in to our PlayStations and tailgate parties and 215 channels and let someone else do it? Maybe no one will do it. Maybe no one is confident enough to even try, let alone succeed. Maybe the peak of human ingenuity and vision was reached on July 20th, 1969, and everything after that was the long, slow decline back into tribalism and superstition.

I, for one, refuse to believe it. I am confident that this will not happen. I know in my heart, as you do too, that our native genius is the ability to recreate and renew ourselves. These dangerous times will pass, and then, perhaps, we can afford to beat a few swords into spinning centrifuges and fuel tanks and plasma drives. Saturn by '70 is a lost opportunity. Saturn by '17 is not. And there are many, many other difficult, bold, audacious and magnificent things we can do when our confidence and vision are in full flower.

We can do them all. We can.

The bloom of American flags after September 11th shocked and horrified many of those who fervently wished such sentiments had gone the way of the Apollo program. We learned much on that awful day. I learned that our pride was waiting, just beneath the surface. It had been there the whole time.

Some people reading this were too young to remember what America was like in the late seventies. Moon landing? Been there, done that. We had just come off of a bitter, endless, pointless war. We had seen riots, assassinations, inflation, stagnation, and international impotence. The Office of the President had been tainted by scandal and treachery, lies and cover-ups, and frankly seemed never to recover. We were weak, we were scared, we were worried and we were timid. We were, in fact, much like I had been in that nightclub, immobilized by fear of failure. The idea that we could succeed at something great and noble had the saccharine taste of nostalgia. Our vision had left us. Our confidence was shot to pieces, lying in a rice paddy, below a Book Depository, in the kitchen of an LA hotel, and inside a DC condominium.

Then along came this man, this former lifeguard, and right off the bat, he had the brazen confidence to say something like this:

'The Democrats say that the United States has had its days in the sun, that our nation has passed its zenith. They expect you to tell your children that the American people no longer have the will to cope with their problems, that the future will be one of sacrifice and few opportunities. My fellow citizens, I utterly reject that view.'

And it was all uphill from there.

'Millions of individuals making their own decisions in the marketplace will always allocate resources better than any centralized government planning process.'

What does that mean? It means that a planning commission in Paris or Washington may think they know more about how to run a gas station than the man who runs the gas station.

But they don't. And this:

'How do you tell a communist? Well, it's someone who reads Marx and Lenin. And how do you tell an anti-communist? It's someone who understands Marx and Lenin.'

Brilliant. I honestly used to think this man was an idiot. If all I wrote in my entire life was a single line that pithy and on-target, I'd be deliriously happy. And this:

'Of the four wars in my lifetime, none came about because the U.S. was too strong.'

I don't know about you, but I'm speechless.

Shelby Foote, writing in his immortal trilogy, The Civil War, describes Lincoln's power to write and communicate as music, as in, 'And then the Lincoln music began to sound.'

Ronald Reagan had that music. We hear in it again and again, that one pure note of confidence, the belief that what we are doing is right.

'Putting people first has always been America's secret weapon. It's the way we've kept the spirit of our revolution alive '- a spirit that drives us to dream and dare, and take great risks for a greater good.'

I'll fight for that. I'll fight for that idea of humanity. I will, so help me God.

And for anyone who loves this nation and this ideal, what can we say about America that can compare to this image:

'I've spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don't know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here'

'After 200 years, two centuries, she still stands strong and true on the granite ridge, and her glow has held steady no matter what storm. And she's still a beacon, still a magnet for all who must have freedom, for all the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home."

Note to the worried: Our music sings Come here and prosper, not go out and pillage.

I was one of those pilgrims, hurtling through the darkness of my own ignorance, towards this home we share and love so deeply. It's good to be home, at last.

Ronnie, forgive me. I'm sorry. I just had no idea at all.

And if that Lady in White is reading this: Drop me an e-mail. I'll knock you off your feet.

Posted by Proteus at 11:39 PM | Comments (217)

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 3:18 PM | Comments (205)