I haven’t forgotten where I was 10 years ago today, when the space shuttle Columbia broke up upon re-entry into the atmosphere.
The evening before, I’d fallen asleep with my boom box playing one of the local National Public Radio stations softly in the background. Since it was a Saturday morning, I could keep to my own schedule instead of letting the alarm clock jar me into consciousness. When I drifted awake, I could hear voices speaking on the radio, but not in the same pattern as a normal “Weekend Edition” program. It took me maybe 10 minutes to pierce through the mental fog and figure out that there was some sort of trouble with Columbia. I turned on the little bedroom TV set — the little Motorola B&W portable that was one of my Dad’s last gifts to me before he died — and there I first saw the images of shuttle debris streaking across the southern sky.
Today in the news, Associated Press science writer Seth Borenstein posed the question: If a space shuttle is doomed, do you let the crew know of their fate? We know what happened to the seven astronauts of Columbia. Even though the shuttle program has ended, the question is worth pondering for future generations of space travelers.
Speaking of NASA … last month I went to a memorial service for one of the scientists who joined NASA when it opened the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1959. Bertram D. “Bert” Donn, the first head of NASA Goddard’s astrochemistry group, also was the Ph.D. adviser to one of my grad-school advisers, making him my “academic grandfather” in a sense. I certainly quoted a lot of “Nuth and Donn” and “Donn and Nuth” papers in my master’s thesis. “Nuth” refers to Joseph A. Nuth III, who still works at NASA Goddard, a couple of miles from where I sit.
The rabbi who delivered the eulogy said that in his college application essay, Bert Donn said that he wanted to understand the universe and to reform the world. He certainly worked at both, because in addition to his scientific work, he was a peace activist who worked tirelessly to desegregate apartment complexes and schools back in the civil rights era, even when racial desegregation was unpopular. (I should add that his wife, Marj Donn, is a social activist and writer too, and a friend.)
Bert Donn’s favorite quote was also one of mine:
You can read more about Bert Donn in this NASA tribute, co-written by Joe Nuth, with links to other obituaries and photographs. Following the service, I enjoyed talking with Joe and with another NASA astrochemistry scientist, Regina Cody, despite the sadness of the occasion that brought us back together.