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Comet of grief and hope Saturday's terrible news reminded me and my wife of her near-rendezvous with the Challenger -- and why we believe that space voyaging must go on

Saturday's terrible news reminded me and my wife of her near-rendezvous with the Challenger -- and why we believe that space voyaging must go on

I was awake when it happened. I write all night, and retired at a typical 7 a.m. All seven of them were dead by then, ashes scattered across east Texas. But who listens to news as they go to bed?

When I finally woke, I knew something was terribly wrong the moment I saw my wife's face. "It's not family or friends," Jeanne said quickly. "But it's bad." And she told me, and then we held each other, hard.

It has a special meaning for us: She was once supposed to ride one of those suckers.

In the late 1970s and early 80s, NASA had a Civilian in Space Program. The idea was that fading public interest in space travel might improve if taxpayers ever got to see somebody other than jocks and scientists go up. If they heard a poet or composer sing to them of the stunning majesty of space, or saw a trained dancer in free fall, or even just an ordinary person gaping out a porthole at the naked stars, then perhaps more of them might finally Get It. They would realize that going to space is going to be like leaving the womb for our species, will make it at least that much more beautiful and happy and productive and wise.

Jeanne and I won the 1977 Hugo and Nebula Awards for Stardance,a novella we co-wrote about the first zero-gravity dancers. She's a modern dancer and choreographer, and was then the founder/artistic director of Halifax's Nova Dance Theatre.

At the 1980 World Science Fiction Convention, in the Boston Sheraton's Grand Ballroom, she premiered a dance called Higher Ground,about the interior mental and spiritual evolution she had undergone in the course of inventing zero-gee dance for our story. It depicted space travel as the natural end result of the first monkey that ever stood upright, as a dancer's highest leap: the one from which, as they used to say of Nijinski, you don't come down again until you feel like it. The dance incorporated some zero-gee special effects by technomedia wizard Bob Atkinson toward the end, so that Jeanne seemed to actually go weightless on stage, while a film backdrop put the starry universe behind her.

Her performance elicited an eight-minute standing ovation. Backstage, Ben Bova, then editor of Omni and well-connected at NASA, asked her if she would be interested in dancing in zero gee for real. Jeanne became a Civilian in Space candidate . . . along with singer John Denver and a number of others.

Then they sent up the first one, great-hearted teacher Christa McAuliffe, on the Challenger.

When that O-ring seal in the right booster rocket let go, seven remarkable lives ended, and so did the Civilian in Space Program for our lifetimes. It was very nearly the end of the entire U.S. space effort.

Our phone rang off the hook that day, and for days thereafter. Reporters all around the globe had found Jeanne's name in the list of finalists for a shuttle seat. That could have been you, each one pointed out, in case she'd missed it. Now what do you think of all this rocket nonsense, Ms. Robinson?

Jeanne spent days saying, over and over, "I'd take the next flight." When they expressed disbelief -- and they all did, politely or otherwise -- she cited figures for number of fatalities per billion passenger miles, proving that space travel is the safest form of transportation ever devised, hundreds of times safer than riding a tricycle in a living room. Not one journalist quoted that part.

Many will spin this new disaster to support their political agenda. Within minutes of the shuttle's destruction, a CBC newstwit was asking my colleague, novelist Rob Sawyer, on the air if he didn't agree that the tragedy was caused by American arrogance in the Middle East? He was so stunned by the question he answered it.

Back when Richard Nixon chatted with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin across a quarter of a million miles, he was cutting NASA's budget with his other hand. Nobody since has ever raised it. After the Challenger tragedy, NASA was ordered to become safer, but given no more money to do it with. Remarkably, they succeeded way beyond any reasonable hope -- about 80 missions have flown safely since Challenger. A space station is well begun, and until now not one construction worker had had a fatal accident.

Ask any engineer: you can't throw a two-lane bridge over a 50-cent river without planning for at least a few deaths. There are always accidents when something big is built. The tunnels from Manhattan Island each had a sandhog casualty rate comparable with combat in a holy war . . . and all those projects accomplished was to get you to Brooklyn, or worse, New Jersey. The space station may one day get us to the stars.

There are only three buses left in North America that go to that stop, now. Columbia was the oldest. There are way fewer spare parts around than there used to be, and fewer technicians trained in their installation. Just to stand still, to maintain its present bare-bones agenda, NASA is going to need a huge whack of money. Right away -- just as America is preparing to spend every spare dollar building the kind of rockets that are supposed to explode and kill people, and to aim them down instead of up.

Columbia needs replacing, today. It needed replacing last week. We need to put people on Mars, and in orbit, and keep them there. As the world simmers and stews in its own madness, the one thing we cannot afford to cut is our only means to rise above it.

Robert Heinlein said this planet is too fragile a basket for humanity to keep all its eggs in. We're easily dumb and quarrelsome enough to drop the basket one of these days. If that happens, it would be nice if there were grandchildren somewhere to whom the cautionary tale might be told.

We all looked up on Saturday. This is a good time to look up. Maybe the universe is trying to get our attention.
B.C. writer Spider Robinson's latest book is The Free Lunch. He can be contacted at

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