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Hail Columbia
1 February 2003

I can't think of a better way to die than winking out with no warning - no time to worry or to weep or even to pray - with the gorgeous Earth and numberless stars imprinted on my retinas and my heart. Sorrow comes to those who are left behind, yes, and there be no comparison possible with other sorrows, other circumstances. Someone we love is gone - just that simple, happens every day, everywhere. But usually when it happens it's for stupid reasons. A car accident, an aneurysm, a cancer, a starvation, a suicide, collateral damage. The crew of the Columbia died enacting the dream of humanity unfolding into space. No stupid there.

Yes, the talking dog said, yes, we will keep going in space. And then in a hard right turn he veered off from the stars to "the god who named them," astronomers, storytellers, millennia-gone elders notwithstanding. And from that he leapt to the "god who remembers our names," thereby invoking the same banal cliché as the plot of that horrible second Star Trek movie, where the point of the mission was to find God, as if all our searching were for an entity who gives names and articulates rules, a guy with a long grey beard astride his throne among the unruly stars. To the credit of Gene Roddenberry, even that lame script had the redeeming feature of debunking (albeit with really bad special effects) the idea that exploration of the wonders of space and the quest for God were identical, in the same headspace, or sought by the same means. I support the space program as a Human, not as a subscriber to the Constitutionally criminal concatenation of Christianity and Americanism that our barking president proclaims.

To die in space. I speculate that the body and soul are fused, intellectual and spiritual aspects merging. When one dies in an instant, I think that one's essence crystallizes forever, as in a rock, a star, the deep dark endless between. May we not violate the dead by appropriating their motives. May we not arbitrarily rename the quest for knowledge and experience in space as the quest for God as an entity somewhere out there, "father away" (as the man said) than all we can see. Only those souls who died knew what motivated them, and it may have been many goals on many planes, seeking, perhaps, divine intersection somewhere near the heart. To quote Doctor Bronner, "All One, All One." But let us not presume, Mr. Bush, let us not presume.

If I could choose my own death, it would be that one, there with those people, on that mission, on the Columbia. If I could choose the future, it would be to keep that possibility open for all of us: to unfold rather than to collapse, to boldly go rather than to fall back and send inanimate proxies.

Space cannot be known nor its wonders and opportunities grasped by mechanical hands. Robots won't live there as we humans might. We have the means to go forth and be present in other regions of this magnificent universe. Seven women and men made that choice in full awareness of the risks, and behind them seventy thousand more would make the same, even after Apollo 1, Soyuz 11, Challenger, Columbia. I would be one of them.

Robots are not designed for epiphany. They won't, as far as I can see, be able to process space on spiritual and scientific axes simultaneously. And even if they could, I'd knock them unapologetically out of the way as I strode to the front of the line.

All that death can teach us about is life. May we take a lesson from these seven souls and go forward, forward, up and out, out and in (as said Joseph Campbell), toward an understanding of the divinity of everything. You don't have to go up and out to encounter the divine, but there's more of the divine to encounter if you do.