It couldn't have
been a more exciting morning. After an initial delay, the space shuttle
Columbia was set to make history with its launch on April 12, 1981. Not
having a VCR, I placed a tape recorder next to the television, so I could
record every word and every sound of this unprecedented event. The countdown
crept to zero; Columbia flew from the launch pad like a rock from a slingshot;
and I was hooked.
From that moment, watching Columbia race into space, I could see my future
path right before my eyes. From that moment, I was determined to be an
astronaut. I followed the two-day mission from start to finish, gathering
news clippings and watching every news report I could find. I knew the
biographies of John Young and Robert Crippen by heart. I couldn't wait
to fly into space, and my life from that moment forward was directed toward
America's space program is a shining example of ingenuity, creativity,
and teamwork. We have accomplished so much, and, in such a visible arena,
we have led the world. Yet, with all its successes, it is the tragedies
that snap us back to reality.
I was not yet born when the first tragedy struck. On January 27, 1967,
during a preflight test in an Apollo space capsule, a fire broke out and
quickly spread through the oxygen rich confines. All three astronauts,
Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed. America and the
space program responded to this tragedy, and in only a year and a half
from the time of the Apollo 1 fire, America became the first and only
country to walk on the moon.
The next tragedy hit closer to home. On my way to my next class in my
senior year of high school on January 28, 1986, my heart sank as I heard
that the space shuttle Challenger had "blown up." How could
that happen? Space travel was "routine," wasn't it? After all,
a civilian teacher was on that mission.
The fallout from that accident was widespread, and the space program ground
to a halt for nearly three years. We lost seven daring individuals --
people who were the best of the best. They had their sights on the stars
and the drive and determination to get there. The thoughts and prayers
of all Americans were with them.
Following the Challenger investigation, there is no doubt that fixes were
made, lessons were learned, and the space program emerged safer and refocused.
After almost three years without a flight, the space shuttle Discovery
put America back on track as it lifted off on September 29, 1988.
My own inspiration and drive were not affected by the Challenger accident,
and I pursued my dream by majoring in aerospace engineering as an undergraduate.
By enrolling in the work-study program, I was able to work in the space
program while enrolled in school. I just couldn't believe it -- at only
nineteen years old, I was working in the space program! I was fortunate
enough to be on a work tour when America returned to space in September
1988, and I was filled with pride watching the shuttle lift off and head
into earth orbit. America was back, and so was the space program.
During one of my work tours in Houston, a co-worker asked me what I wanted
to be when I grew up. "An astronaut," I answered without hesitation.
She looked me right in the eye and said that I better be prepared for
many more years of school if being an astronaut was really what I wanted
to do. I took her advice to heart, and shortly after getting my degree
from Texas A&M, I enrolled at Rice University for graduate school.
In a classic example of not picking your career, but rather your career
picking you, I realized at the end of graduate school that my calling
was to another endeavor. I learned first hand the difference between doing
what you want to do and doing what you were meant to do.
I have conducted tests for astronauts in the large underwater training
pool, and I have floated weightless along side them in the KC-135. However,
my head tells me that my destiny does not lie in being an astronaut, although
my heart will always look to the stars with a sense of awe and adventure.
To be an astronaut is to be an explorer in the greatest sense. They are
heroes, and they are role models.
My heart goes out to the loved ones of the fallen astronauts, and it goes
out to the entire space family. For the seven astronauts who perished
on February 1, 2003, I know there are many prayers being sent your way.
There are many Americans asking God to bless you and to let your souls
rest in peace. I, for one, will not utter such words because I know the
type of people you were. Instead, I will simply say: Goodbye. Fly fast...
and fly free.
Eberle is President and CEO of GOPUSA
(www.GOPUSA.com), a news, information, and commentary company based
in Houston, TX. He holds a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Rice University.