The Amaz!ng Meeting 2003

Electric Monk - Columbia

Following Shermer's talk, Hal Bidlack came up on stage to make an announcement. He was clearly not in his usual good humor. This was an Air Force Lt. Col. who had an unpleasant duty to perform, and was determined to do it right. Here is what he told us, transcribed verbatim from the videotape:

I have been looking forward to meeting Dr. Shermer for a long time and unfortunately, that's spoiled. I want you to listen carefully to what I'm going to tell you. The space shuttle Columbia was lost a few minutes ago. At 200,000 feet over Texas, NASA lost contact and images from the ground show the shuttle breaking up and impact is reported north of Dallas.

Now listen to me. I'm a career military officer. This is a tragedy. But these people were doing exactly what they wanted to do, in exactly the place they wanted to be. When Dave Scott set foot on the moon on Apollo XV he said, "Man's fundamental nature is to explore, and this is exploration at its greatest." Gus Grissom gave an interview a week before the fire on Apollo I and he said, "if there's an accident, for God's sake, don't let it stop the program." This is a tragedy, but they understood, and that's what we do in the military.

We're going to take an hour break. We've got TVs in the lobby. We're going to try to put a TV into this signal and of course you can go up to your rooms if you wish. And in an hour; let's call it 11:30, that's an hour and 15, we're going to continue the conference because I believe that it would be an insult to their memory to deny this audience the information that we want to give it. We can mourn, and we shall, but with dignity and grace, and remember that the space program is an amazing thing. I know astronauts. They were where they wanted to be. So please come back at 11:30.

We were stunned by this, which I'm sure is no surprise. I could immediately feel a real emotional shock, with a feeling of detachment from reality and everything. A lot of people at the conference, including myself, were very impressed with Hal's impromptu speech, and knew that he did an admirable job handling a difficult task thrust upon him with no warning. Thank you Hal!

Attendees Gathers Around TV in the Hallway to Watch the News on Columbia

As before, with the Challenger explosion, I found myself surrounded by people who cared greatly about the space program, and who were deeply affected by this loss. We gathered around the TVs listening to the news, and trying to put the pieces back together (literally, if we had but the power to do so). There were a lot of damp eyes and somber looks in the hallway during the break.

Randi and Others Listen and Reflect

I had been wearing the little gold Space Shuttle pin that I had gotten as part of the KSC tour since Thursday as a way of celebrating the trip, and the manned space program itself. Now it took on a much sadder role. It was my worry bead, and I couldn't stop fingering it as I watched Columbia break up over and over on the television. SkepticScott reminded me of our KSC tour guide's advice, to listen for the Shuttle's twin sonic booms as it came in for landing at 9:15.

The Mood is Decidedly Solemn: Columbia and Crew Are Lost

The crew members (astronauts, amazing people, all) deserved to be home with their families, and Columbia deserved to be safely on the ground, eventually to retire to the Smithsonian. None of them deserved to be scattered, ignominiously, over half of Texas. I know that I am going to feel the pain of their loss for a long time. I also know that eventually the pain will fade, but finding out what happened, fixing it, and moving on will be the only cure.

Echoes of Shermer's talk, concluded just minutes before, came back to me. The universe is pitiless and remorseless; its laws cannot be broken. We humans cling to each other because we are all that we have. We work together to build a better world because there is no one to do it for us. Justice and Freedom exist only because we choose work and fight for them.

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