This article first appeared in the Donegal Democrat

If we die, we want people to accept it. We’re in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom, 1926-1967, killed when Apollo I exploded while waiting for take-off.

Last Saturday afternoon I took a rest from the weekend shopping to step into a pub for a quiet drink and a sandwich. I knew the place as one of those pubs with a strong sports clientele, and it being a Saturday the Rugby and Premiership would be filling the screens.

Instead, a crowd sat in the corner watching Sky News.

There was no news of course. Only the first few details, repeated over and over. Colombia lost contact with NASA Mission Control, something went wrong, and the wreckage was landing in Texas.

I spent an hour in the pub. In that time, Sky never left the shuttle story. People kept watching the screen, even in the absence of news. Some things are just so big, you have to keep watching until they sinks in.

I was a student in Dublin during the 1986 Challenger disaster. I didn’t have a telly at the time, and got my news from radio and newspapers. The real impact of Challenger didn’t hit me until ten years later in Chicago.

A friend there told me how her entire school class were watching it live, because of the Teacher In Space. NASA had had the bright PR idea of sending a teacher up in the shuttle. She was going to give lessons from space on weightlessness, gravity, and so on. As a result almost every schoolkid in America watched in horror as Challenger blow up live on national television 74 seconds after take-off.

I got home from school the day in April 1981 that Colombia touched down at the end of its first mission. It was a bit of space history, the first ever flight by a re-usable space vehicle. I was a teenager, just at that age when space travel and science fiction shows were the coolest thing in the world. I remember my father coming in as Colombia coasted down the runway, and explaining to him in way too much detail what was going on.

The shuttle put the romance back in space. When I was going through my space age phase, I used to drink up every bit of information I could get about Pioneer and Voyager and Mariner probes going out exploring the solar system. It was interesting, but they were all unmanned robot probes.

One of my earliest memories is of when I was little more than a toddler. I woke in what seemed the middle of the night (it was probably only 9 or 10 o’clock) and headed into the living room to see what all the noise was. There were about ten adults watching the telly, watching a blurry picture. I asked what it was, and someone said “there’s a man on the moon.” Being four years old, this was no news to me. Every one knew there was a Man In The Moon.

Apollo was ancient history by the time I caught the space bug. But compared to the moon landings, or the Skylab space station, the robot probes lacked a certain something. The shuttle gave that something back.

There will always be risks in space exploration. Its a dangerous business getting there, and a hostile, risky place to be. No matter how much we take it for granted, the astronauts and shuttle crews are aware of that. Their courage amazes me, not just that they get on with the job, but that they make it seem so routine.