Years ago, when I had already covered enough launches of the space shuttle to qualify as a hard-shelled veteran, the father of a fellow reporter showed up at the Kennedy Space Center to watch his first launch. He looked like he had been around the horn a few times, a grizzled old fire fighter who had seen it all.
As the time for the launch approached, I headed out to edge of the grassy field in front of the viewing stands so I could stand on a mossy bank that is the closest anyone can get to the launch pad, except for a small rescue crew.
"Mind if I tag along?" my friend's father asked.
We walked past the huge countdown clock as it ticked away the seconds, and then we waited. Moments later, a blinding flash signaled the start of the launch, and as the shuttle moved up at what seemed to be an incredibly slow pace, the roar of its powerful engines overwhelmed us. The ground beneath our feet began to shake, even at a distance of three miles from the launchpad. Shockwaves from the rocket blast almost rocked us back on our heels.
Over the roar of the engines, I heard a strange noise. I turned and looked at my friend's father, who was sobbing.
"God speed, men," he cried, over and over again. "God speed."
Solemn Reminders of Risk
For him, the launch of the space shuttle had been transformed from a demonstration of technological prowess to a mission of valor by those who were held captive in its cramped cabin as it shuttered and vibrated upward, defying odds that few of us really understand. My friend's wish came true on that day. The flight was "nominal," as NASA would say, an awful word to describe such a perilous adventure.
A few months later, the Challenger lifted off, and the story was very different. And now, all these years later, the Columbia has reminded us once again of the price some people pay so that the rest of us can travel beyond the boundaries of our planet, even if only in front of a television set.
Stories abound these days about how the seven persons aboard the Columbia are so different from those early cowboys who rode their rockets into space. They're more down to earth now, we're told, more like the rest of us. They're just ordinary folk.
Having known dozens of astronauts, I can tell you one thing for certain. I've never met one who can honestly be described as ordinary.
They are ordinary in the sense that we all share common dreams, to live well and do good work, and return at the end of the day to our families. But from the very beginning, the astronaut corps was filled with men who were super-achievers. They were death-defying test pilots who were as much a part of the machines they flew as the rivets that held them together.
But they became bigger than life, even the early spacemen who had little control over the cages that sent them hurling around the planet. They lived closer to the edge, and played as hard as they worked, thus adding to the legends.
But here's something that might surprise you. In spite of their sometimes braggadocios demeanor, many of them found the experience humbling. There's something about looking out the window at the Earth below that leaves one painfully aware of just how insignificant our worries, and indeed ourselves, really are.
From space, there are no boundaries between nations, other than at the edge of continents. International boundaries are arbitrary barriers between people who share the same dreams.
Familiar, But Extraordinary
The astronaut corps today is, of course, different than it was in days of yore. It's no longer a white male club. To its credit, NASA has made every effort to ensure that the astronaut corps reflects not only the composition of the United States, but the world as well.
But they are still the same in that they are highly gifted persons who have already achieved much by the time they earn their space wings.
What has changed more than the astronauts is how we perceive them. They seem more ordinary because we have, as a people, grown bored with the space shuttle. Until the Columbia broke apart over Texas, I doubt that one American out of a thousand could have named a single member of the crew.
It had become routine, and it seemed like astronauts were all around us, talking to our school children, leading our parades, acting like ordinary folks with extraordinary jobs.
Their numbers have grown over the years to the point that lots of people have known at least one of them, even before he or she became an astronaut.
I live in a small Alaskan town of 30,000 people who can only be reached by air or boat because there's no road leading into this place. To say it's isolated is an understatement.
Yet the day after the Columbia broke apart just minutes before it was supposed to land, my hometown newspaper, the Juneau Empire, splashed a story across page one about a local physician, Deb Lessmeier, who had been at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch because one of her friends from medical school was a member of the crew.
Laurel Clark, according to Lessmeier, may have seemed ordinary in that she loved life and was "so much of the Earth."
"She noticed every flower, every bird," Lessmeier told the Empire. No wonder Lessmeier wasn't surprised when she heard her old friend say in a television interview from space that the jingling of metal straps and buckles floating in the cabin sounded like music.
Ten days before the flight the two friends from medical school were talking on the phone, and the astronaut was preoccupied with helping her son with a school science project. She was, in the end, a mom first.
Lessmeir still has a photo of her and six friends, including Clark, that was taken during a sailing trip after medical school.
The caption on the photo reads: "A ship is safe in a harbor, but that's not what ships are built for."
Ordinary? I think not.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.