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No Greater Hero

Chances are, when we MIT students were very small, we thought NASA was something amazing. The space agency embodies our own spirit, the passion to explore, to learn, to see what’s out there. As we grew up, most of us decided we would pursue other things than outer space.

Maybe computers fascinated us, or we couldn’t stop thinking about how we think, but a few of us looked up at the night sky and couldn’t take our eyes away. Most of us are at MIT because we like exploring, and so we understand instinctively those who could not remove their gaze from the stars. Somewhere in our minds, the part of us that still sees with four-year-old eyes, there is little as moving as a Saturn V launch and no greater hero than an astronaut.

There are those who think that the astronaut’s time has passed. Some critics complain that space travel is unsafe. Two major accidents haunt even young minds, and the space program has seen many lives lost. Indeed, there can be no doubt that space travel is dangerous. It has been said that the most hazardous part of space travel is the time from just before liftoff to the time just after landing.

Others argue that the science is of little value. Who cares, after all, what happens to mice finding their way through a maze while orbiting the earth?

As scientists and engineers, we should constantly ask, “what happens if I do this?” Columbia carried eighty experiments that asked this question. It is at the core of our human curiosity. Our worst trait is our fear of things new and different -- the instinct that allows “what dangers await?” to overwhelm “what if?” Our greatest heights are achieved in the wonder and the joy of discovery. Space travel embodies this, the finest expression of humanity. Many have suggested we abandon manned spaceflight, but to abandon our exploration would be to deny our best instincts. We would accept defeat in the constant struggle to improve as a species.

With the events of last Saturday, we must be vigilant to maintain wonder over fear. The President has expressed his support for the space program, but there can be no doubt that NASA will yet again come under fire. At MIT, we know the value of exploration for its own sake. We must show our support for our childhood heroes and what drives them, lest we forget what drives us, too.

Seven astronauts died high over Texas Saturday morning. Seven men and women, heroes all -- let’s do right by them, and keep exploring everywhere there is something wonderful and new, and do it for the sake of discovery.