What is a hero?

I was shocked when I wandered across CNN’s web page Saturday morning. I was just expecting to see more of the same news: US getting ready to go to war with Iraq, The intense cold in the rest of the country, Tsi-tsi fly mating season beginning in Southern Africa. I didn’t expect to see such a world shattering piece of news on a web site. I guess its my first notification of a disaster by web. Of course, I am talking about the breakup of the Shuttle Colombia over Texas and Louisiana.
Like most people around my age, I remember where I was when the Challenger exploded back in 1986. I still get sad when I think of that accident, and this accident just re-opened old wounds. Why do I mourn seven astronauts that I barely even knew. I knew the basics of the flight: a very rare all scientific flight, good ol’ Colombia, the second shuttle and the first one to orbit the earth, and that at 16 days, it seemed like an awfully long time to be up in space.
But why do I mourn this group of people? I think because they are very similar to the firefighters and policeman who ran up into a burning crumbling building on September 11, 2001 and those passengers on United 93 who told some terrorists what to go do with themselves and sacrificed their lives to save others. These astronauts: Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, and Ilan Ramon were doing something that most of us only dream about doing. They were visiting the stars and expanding our knowledge of the universe. They transcended earth-as-normal and worked for all of us. They helped us believe that no matter what sort of zaniness goes on in the world, that somehow it is all insignificant, and maybe, just maybe things will turn out all right.
I certainly hope that the investigators will be able to figure out soon what exactly happened, and that it doesn’t take us years to recover. Part of me hopes that it will spur innovation and maybe new types of shuttles. Another part of me worries about those guys up on the International Space Station whose ride has just broken down and they don’t know when the next taxi home is. Deep down though I feel that things will be all right.
Some useful links:
CNN’s Shuttle Coverage
Nixlog’s Columbia coverage including Infographics links