As a kid I had grown up on Tintin comics and two of the adventures deal with Tintin going to the moon . Herge had done such a magnificent job of portraying the process of space exploration that I had fallen in love with space exploration and astronomy.
Today I was browsing through various pages in search for a solution to a thorny technical problem when I landed on a video from NASA (I have no idea how I end up on pages like these , usually the videos tend to something far worse but one could do far worse than ending up with NASA videos) . Today they commemorated the anniversary of the Challenger disaster . To me it bought back memories to that fateful day where I was immersed in my homework but the rumble of the rocket taking off on TV was too much to resist and I watched in awe struck wonder as the rocket slowly lifted off amidst billowing smoke and flames so reminiscent of the Herge drawings. I was mildly envious of the astronauts who were taking off on this joy ride . I was idly wondering how funny it would be if they would repeat the last scene with Professor Cuthbert and Haddock where Haddock is given up for dead and as somebody mentions whisky, he jumps up . And then suddenly to my horror and amazement, the Challenger exploded . I remember devouring every piece of news for days on end about the Challenger and its ill fated crew . I remember even reading about the Senate hearings . None of the names in the senate investigation committee was memorable to me at the time .
A few years later . I happened to encounter a brilliant book by a Nobel Prize winning physicist . The book was called “Surely you are joking , Mr Feynman” . I fell in love with the book and idolized the man . For somebody like me whose primary drive in life seems to be an insatiable thirst for knowledge , intelligence is a highly desired attribute and he was the epitome of intelligence . I had devoured books on Einstein , Newton , Galois , Gauss and several other intellectual giants but none seemed to be so down to earth as Richard Feynman. He was the archetype of the renaissance man if such a thing is possible in today’s world . His mantra was always simplicity before everything else . It was during my reading that I found out that he was appointed by President Reagan to investigate the Challenger disaster and while scientists were merely debating using complicated equations and simulations, Feynman showed them and to the world through a simple ice water experiment the reason for the failure . It is also amazing to me that he did that while he himself was dying of cancer and in constant pain . But the elegance of the experiment and being shown that by a remarkable genius like Feynman that I admired so deeply, did little to explain away the horror that I felt that day, 30 years ago.
About 13 years ago , I was watching again on TV the reentry of the Columbia space shuttle back into the atmosphere and I watched a series of events unfold which bought back to the forefront of my mind,the horror of the Challenger .
We tend to hear a lot of grave and terrible news about the deaths of thousands of people and it seems to leave me jaded and indifferent . I hate to think on the lines of Stalin who claimed cynically that one death is a tragedy while a million deaths is a statistic . That sounds downright callous and awful . But somehow the deaths of astronauts affects me deeply and it is for the simple reason that they are risking their very lives for the sake of science , for the sake of humanity , for the sake of the greater good . When I hear the term, the greater good, I usually cringe but this time I cannot help but believe that this is what these brave men and women are doing. They undergo long periods of isolation away from their families and countless hardships and at times pay the ultimate price so that the process of furthering the cause of humanity continues, for you , for me , for every one of us.
A minute of silent respect to remember and commemorate these heroes .