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Shuttle astronauts risked all to improve the planet

February 03, 2003

After two decades and more than 100 flights, Americans have come to take the flights of the space shuttle program for granted. And with good reason: In more than 40 years of U.S. manned space flight, there has never been an accident during a descent to earth or during a landing - until now.

Shortly after 8 a.m. this past Saturday morning, as its crew prepared to land, the space shuttle Columbia fell apart over Texas, resulting in the deaths of seven astronauts, including six Americans and one Israeli.

Because the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon, had been a fighter pilot involved in the destruction of an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, the security surrounding the flight had been described as extraordinary.

But because the shuttle apparently broke up at an altitude of 200,000 feet, U.S. officials have for now ruled out a terrorist connection to this disaster. They are focusing instead on the fact that a piece of insulating foam came off an external fuel tank and struck the shuttle's left wing.

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Engineers concluded that any damage to the wing was minor and that it posed no safety hazard to the crew.

It may be months before the cause of this tragedy is discovered. Until then, we need to acknowledge that the space program is not only involved in scientific experimentation, but also in building friendship between nations.

None of The Herald-Mail's editors have ever flown into outer space, but some have been involved in groups like Leadership Hagerstown, in which people from very different backgrounds and professions have been asked to work together on common goals.

In the process of doing that, they have learned a lot about each other, and something about themselves as well. But they did not risk our lives to do that, which is why those who died aboard the space shuttle are truly heroes.

Hoping to make scientific breakthroughs that might benefit the entire planet, they put themselves in harm's way and paid the ultimate price for it. Our condolences go out to their families, friends and co-workers in the space program.

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