Dear Tyler & Ellyn,
This morning when I asked you two about your thoughts regarding the Columbia disaster, you said, "I don't see why they were called 'heroes'." I understand why you feel that way, and I wanted to take a few moments to talk about it.
Back when I was a kid, the United States of America was a different country. There are many, many things that have changed, too many to tell you about here, but one of the ways it was different is this -
No country had ever put a man on the moon.
I remember the day Apollo 1 exploded on the launch pad and killed three astronauts. I remember when Apollo 8 was launched and orbited the moon for the very first time. And I will never forget that night in July 1969 when my parents woke me up in the middle of a good sleep to listen to the broadcast of the very first landing. The words "The Eagle has landed" have an emotional impact on me today that cannot be overstated. We did it. The US put a man on the moon before 1970.
The next day, Neil Armstrong got out of the Lunar Module, climbed down the ladder, and actually walked on the moon. Little kids would never again look at a virgin moon - man had conquered it.
But that conquest came at a tremendous price. It required the combined, coordinated efforts of thousands of people, millions of dollars, and untold personal sacrifices by the engineers, scientists, astronauts, and all who knew and loved them to make it happen. It was a conquest greater than any in the history of man. It absolutely dwarfed Columbus' discovery of the new world, Magellan circling the globe, or De Gama seeing the Pacific Ocean. All those men were explorers, and their daring, their courage, and their dedication opened up new frontiers for the rest of us.
It is just over 30 years since mankind walked on the moon. 30 years after Columbus discovered the New World was 1522. It would be nearly 100 years before Europeans gained a meaningful foothold on the new continent, but the initial exploration had been completed. Columbus had proved it was possible, even if it was incredibly difficult.
In the same vein, the astronauts and the entire space program have proved that space flight is possible, that landing on the moon is possible - even if it is still incredibly difficult and terribly risky.
In some ways, the space program is a victim of its own success. They have had so many successes and so few failures that we have come to believe that space flight is routine. That it is about as risky and complicated as hopping on plane and flying to London. But as we saw on Saturday, it is many orders of magnitude more risky. Every one of those astronauts knew that they could die when they strapped themselves onto the rocket three weeks ago, just as Columbus and his men knew they might never return to Spain. But they did it anyway. They considered the risk to be worth the reward.
So when we say that the astronauts are heroes, we mean they are people who are trail-blazers, people who incur great personal risk, people who will actually get very little personal payoff from the risks they take and who may in fact pay for their daring with their lives, but people without whom all of humanity would be infinitely poorer.
Hope that helps you to understand.