The Stars Still Beckon
One small item lost on the space shuttle Columbia as it broke up across the blue skies of Texas on Saturday was a black-and-white drawing by a young boy with a dream.
It was drawn in 1942 by a teenage Jew named Peter Ginz in a concentration camp and was packed on Columbia by the Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. The drawing depicted the boy's vision of a view of Earth from the mountains on the moon.
His drawing ended up in a Holocaust museum in Israel. Astronaut Ramon was able to borrow it for the flight, wanting to take that vision of space into space itself.
Both the boy and his drawing are gone, but not the boy's hope - a hope for humans to break free of the material bounds of Earth and discover a better future in the expanse of the universe.
That deep desire, like a chick pecking at its shell, goes beyond merely seeking useful spinoffs in technology, military defense, or international cooperation from the billions spent on space research.
It's a hope that has served to revive public support for NASA after each disaster, starting with the 1967 Apollo fire, then the 1986 Challenger explosion, and now the loss of seven astronauts on Columbia's reentry to Earth.
It's a hope that tolerates the risks of breaking new barriers but one that demands a rigorous investigation when things go wrong - not to end space research but to serve as a course correction for NASA.
Knowing exactly what did break up Columbia in the upper atmosphere will not be easy. The recovered debris and data may be unrevealing. But no less than three separate probes will try to find out: one by NASA itself, one by an independent team, and one by Congress.
Investigators will likely try to place ultimate responsibility for this disaster on the nation's unwillingness - reflected through Congress - to pay for space projects adequately.
In recent years, a special panel warned of NASA's being underfunded and of its ability to address the safety concerns for the four space shuttles. Others are asking if there's a need for a whole new design of manned space craft.
It's possible this tragedy is not the result not of a worthwhile vision of space travel, but of a lapse from it.
NASA has handled itself well in this crisis, and now the nation can rise again with that same hope of breaking Earth's limits.