WEB EXCLUSIVE! Columbia- Why do we care?

by Amy Zoss

Perhaps by now you’re weary of news about the Columbia disaster. Perhaps you were deeply moved or perhaps it was the smallest blip on your radar screen.

If you follow the news with any intensity, you can quickly reach the point of news fatigue rather quickly. Every day another disaster somewhere on the good Earth, every day there is another uprising, another battle, another suicide attack, another disaster, another accident.

And yet according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup poll, more than 58 percent of the American public was “deeply upset” by the loss of the Columbia and her crew. An astounding 82 percent still support manned flights to space.

Why are we so moved? Why do we still want to send people up there when we have the assurances of respected intellectuals that manned space flight is unnecessary?

I think the story of my friend Tsutsumi Sophia Bright helped me find a bit of insight. The daughter of a Japanese woman who married and divorced an American GI, Sophia’s head was filled with infinite space and the stars in it from the day I met her in second grade. This tiny brown girl with a penchant for wearing bows wherever they could be attached to her clothing had an extra-terrestrial version of the American dream at her breast.

Sophia’s mom was poor, and Sophia grew up in a world full of trying circumstance. Sophia thought that her ticket out would be to do well in school. She pushed herself to sometimes ludicrous models of perfection that she couldn’t always reach, but at the back of her mind was this persistent voice that held the carrot on the end of the stick for her – a job in space. A job tied to being in space, going to space, learning about space.

She would spend hours on her powder-coated white daybed in a small room smelling of mothballs and roach spray at The Homes of Oakridge, Des Moines’ version of ‘the projects’, drawing out her plans on a sketch pad in the most minute detail. Fully colored-pencil sketches of her future and where her hard work and dreams would take her bloomed on page after page of sketch paper.

Sophia graduated with honors from Des Moines Roosevelt High School and Central Academy. She went to Iowa State University on a full ride scholarship and immediately declared a major in aerospace engineering. While a lot of her friends hacked their way to some sort of career or toward a job as a perpetual student (and I am a case in point), Sophia simply got out of bed every day and made it happen bit by excruciating bit.

She met and married Nathan Bright, also an aerospace engineer, and the new family moved to the Houston area so both Nathan and Sophia could get jobs working with NASA.

Sophia lifted herself from poverty and from the lack of formal education of her parents. Sophia made a goal, worked hard and now she’s doing the things she drew out on the sketchpad over 20 years ago. Whenever I hear anything about the Space Program, I feel a trill of pride in my best friend for getting there.

That Saturday morning, Sophia was in complete shock. At home in Houston, Sophia watched in horror as the news unfolded in the national media. “I have it on NASA TV and they’ve shut off all communication.” she breathed. “This is not good. Oh, my God this is not good.”

And I think Sophia’s tale comes back to why so many are so deeply moved and why we still want people in space. We go about our lives, Earthbound, and in our daily tasks we sometimes put our dreams on a back burner somewhere. We work at the jobs we end up with, some of us, and our goals surround such things as making the next mortgage payment or something as mundane and noble as putting food on the table for our families.

But it is in people to explore, to dream, to learn and to dare. Somehow, when we sent those seven into space, even if we weren’t paying attention or didn’t know they were there, we went with them. A part of our better nature is to have the grand and the mighty in some small part of our lives, to be able to look up into the sky at night with a head full of space and stars and know hey, we we’ve been there. Hey, one of us, we’ve been there.

And when those streaks lit up the Texas sky early last Saturday morning seven lives were lost, yes, but something else went too – that small part of the infinite we carry with each of us was lost.