Earlier this evening I found myself watching The Right Stuff, the 1983 film about the test pilots and Mercury astronauts of the 50’s and early 60’s. There were seven of them, as there were seven people aboard the Columbia today. One of them, Virgil I “Gus” Grissom, would later become the USA’s first space program casualty in 1967, along with Roger Chaffee and Edward White, when Apollo 1 caught fire during a simulation exercise.
The first astronauts were largely drawn from the ranks of test pilots, and The Right Stuff portrays the Mercury program as an extension of test flights into space, in response to the military requirements of the Cold War. After the intense public interest that resulted, President Kennedy’s announcement of the Apollo program in 1961 has also been called a Cold War stunt, but I think it was clear by then that the people of the USA needed to know that there was still a Frontier, and pioneers to explore it. That need has not gone away; while NASA has suspended Shuttle flights while yesterday’s accident is investigated, President Bush has already made it clear that space exploration will continue. As if there was any doubt.