The astronauts who died aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, sacrificed their lives to the pursuit of science, in service of our common need, our common mission—to access and understand our universe, to expand our capabilities, to inform the future with evidence and its forthright cooperative application.
Christa McAuliffe celebrated the way in which the Teacher in Space program had focused the nation’s attention on the noble and necessary work of teachers and school systems. They work to make the best possible future possible not only for individuals and communities, but for the whole of society. Of this inspired work, she said:
“I touch the future; I teach.”
The moral legacy of the Challenger crew feeds into all of the work we do in space:
- The James Webb Space Telescope opening new windows into the early formation of our universe;
- Mars rovers taking samples that will be returned to Earth in later missions;
- Our first experiment in deflecting an asteroid with a precision-guided rocket launched from Earth;
- The ongoing and expanding science conducted aboard the International Space Station;
- According to NASA: “Both Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 have reached “Interstellar space” and each continue their unique journey through the Universe…”
In the opening of the television series Cosmos, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson describes the history of science as:
“one adventure, with many heroes.”
What Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger crew signaled, with their hard work, their risk-taking, and their tragic sacrifice, is that we need each generation to be well prepared to do the best quality science for the benefit of everyone. We should honor their legacy by making sure we invest in the best quality education for everyone, regardless of where they live.
37 years after the tragic loss of the Challenger crew, we have an unprecedented need for new and thorough knowledge about our relationship to this planet we call home. We must remember what is given in the pursuit of knowledge and a more capable future, and so make sure we study, comprehend, and act responsibly toward our special, flourishing, yet fragile cosmic home.
We need space-based Earth science to become part of our everyday lives in new ways:
- Not only to make weather predictions more accurate;
- To support better decision-making about how and where to grow what;
- To make the food we like more sustainable, so it will still be around generations into the future;
- To help secure our cities and communities against rapidly worsening climate change impacts;
- To help financial entities avoid risk and invest in a climate-smart economy.
We can meet the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced, with the dignity, confidence, and solidarity warranted. In fact, we must.