My day is drawing to an end. For most people, it's been over already for hours. It's 3:30 AM and I suppose my today has already become tomorrow. But that's not important. I want to write something quickly. For no other reason other than to record an event from my perspective.
This afternoon at just after two o'clock, my friend Will called me at a friends house just outside of London to tell me that NASA mission control in Houston, Texas, had just lost contact with the Space Shuttle Columbia as it was re-entering the Earths atmosphere, coming home after a successful sixteen-day mission.
The moment we heard the news we turned on the TV. Pictures were already coming in from Texas where the Shuttle could be seen breaking apart as it streaked across the blue morning sky. Something had gone catastrophically wrong and as with so many major news events today, the world sat and watched events unravel right there in front of them, live on TV.
My first impression was horror. Clearly the seven astronauts would not survive this. Whatever happened, whatever went wrong, had just cost these seven people their lives.
I won't pretend to be a close follower of the space program. I won't claim to have any idea what this latest sixteen-day space shuttle mission accomplished or even sought to accomplish. I suppose, like most people, space shuttle missions were no longer news to me. The space shuttle goes up, they do some stuff, then they return to earth. As much as I'd be interested in seeing the shuttle take off and land, the media aren't as interested in those events as they once were.
Oddly enough just a few weeks ago I was actually at the Johnson Space Center in Houston with my friend Erin. While there we chatted about how routine space shuttle missions had become. So much so, that their many launches and landings no longer seem to make the news, that is until something goes wrong, as it clearly did today.
I remember clearly the first Shuttle launch. April 12th, 1981, and the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off from its pad at the Kennedy Space Center on mission STS-1. I was just ten years old and in school at the time. Classes were halted so teachers and pupils could all watch the event on the Schools TV.
It was an exciting day, in many ways merely because we were doing something unusual, but nonetheless, the magic and wonder of that historical moment wasn't lost on me. I remember how our teacher at the time, Mr. Wynn, kept telling us that this was history in the making and we'd all remember where we were when the first Space Shuttle took off. I guess he was right.
We watched quite a few other launches of the Shuttle after that one. Like so many others at the time, I soon got a model of the Space Shuttle. It flew many missions fueled by the imagination of a young boy dreaming of what it might be like to be on board a real-life space ship.
Five years later, having just returned home from school, I was watching TV as news broke that the Space Shuttle, Challenger, had just exploded shortly after takeoff. At the time there were just four TV channels in the UK and no cable or satellite TV with 24-hour news networks. Newsround, a BBC news show aimed at children, found itself at the sharp end of history as it broke the news of the disaster to Britain before any other UK network could prepare a newsflash.
This was clearly a major event. The pictures were dramatic and without hesitation, I flung open the living room door and shouted "Mom! The space shuttle has exploded!" She was there in a second. I distinctly remember her drying her hands on a tea towel as we both watched the TV in shocked silence.
I guess we thought it wouldn't happen again. It's been years since the Challenger disaster and since that time there have been many missions that have taken place each taking up fewer column inches in our daily papers than the last. Space travel isn't news anymore. Until today.
The 24-hour news channels did what they always do, they showed the same pictures over and over and over again finding different ways of saying the same thing over and over until they could find another expert to hypothesize about what might have gone wrong.
The TV news networks were prepared for this, or so it seemed. These days they seem to be prepared for almost everything, with cameras capturing events and relaying them live to news anchors who are well versed in the language of drama.
As I watched the news I couldn't help feeling that this tragedy, as horrific as it clearly was, somehow seemed less shocking than the Challenger disaster. I began to wonder if we have become numbed by the seemingly constant stream of shocking images broadcast into our homes each day by news stations wrapped up in their battles for ratings.
What happened to Challenger was certainly more visually dramatic and therefore more shocking, and perhaps because the space shuttle was still a relatively new thing back in 1986 people seemed to be stunned by the event. Or maybe because these missions are now so commonplace we're no longer shown the human side of space travel by the media, and therefore it's harder for us to truly comprehend that lives have been lost.
For now at least, before I go to sleep tonight, I'm sparing a thought for the seven people who died. Astronauts commander Rick D. Husband; pilot William C. McCool; payload commander Michael P. Anderson; mission specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark; and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
In an address to the American people, and indeed the world, President Bush said "The same creator who names the stars also knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today. The crew of the shuttle Columbia did not return safely to Earth, yet we can pray that all are safely home."
I hope so too.