The view from space is of one world. There are no visible boundaries between nations.

They were so close when it happened – 10 minutes from touchdown after a two-week trip. Technically, you could say they were already home. They had entered the atmosphere.

It’s a symbol of sorts that the greatest danger the astronauts encountered was not in faraway space, but in the supposed safety of this world.

Like many, I all but ignored the shuttle until the end. Since then, I have read more about it than in years. Among the details was one that should have been obvious. There are two points of greatest risk. The first is the launch, the second re-entry. In other words, it is when the shuttle is still on Earth – leaving home or returning to it – that the peril is highest.

There are many definitions of coming “home.” If we’re across town, it’s our house or apartment. If we’re overseas, “home” is our country. But the astronauts alone can speak of home in a global sense. The few hundred souls who have gone to space are the only humans in history who can say that returning home means coming back not to a neighborhood or city, but to Earth itself.

Many astronauts have talked about this. They say that only upon gazing down from orbit do they realize they are citizens of the planet. From space, they say, there are no borders between nations. It’s one world. The Earth is said to be the most beautiful sight in the solar system. It’s not a bleak landscape like the moon or Mars. It appears blue and alive and peaceful.

But down here, we know it isn’t. We know it can be a dangerous place.

There was a symbol of it aboard the shuttle. The Israeli astronaut brought with him a drawing of the moon done by a boy killed in the Auschwitz death camp. He brought it to show the triumph of the spirit: even in that earthly hell, a child created art. But you could say it was also a reminder of the dangers of this world.

Ancient mapmakers used to write an interesting phrase upon the uncharted seas beyond the borders of known nations: “Here be dragons.” In a modern sense, that’s where our astronauts have always gone – into the danger of unexplored space.

But on this mission, it turns out that space was the safest part of their journey. Only as they returned to the “refuge” of earth did they encounter the dragons that killed them.

No, it’s not that the world itself is dangerous. What makes it so are the limitations of man.

We are capable of amazing technology – computers, spacecraft, nuclear power – but often, these things spin beyond our command, and collapse back upon us. It can happen by mistake, or at the hand of madmen. And now it’s said that the same terrorists who brought about Sept. 11 are seeking a nuclear weapon. What next for this world?

Years ago, I read a memorable essay about a NASA mission. In 1972, the agency sent an unmanned craft called Pioneer10 toward deep space with an engraved plaque carrying a message of greeting from the people of Earth. The hope is that some day, it might be intercepted by a distant civilization.

In 1983, it passed beyond Pluto, out of the solar system, and many wrote of the hope the craft carried with it, and the message about earth. But one essayist pondered on that, and wondered what would become of the world in the millennia it might take before Pioneer is found, if it ever is. He pondered global tensions, and nuclear weapons, and where such things might lead. If I remember right, he ended with a sendoff to the craft:

“Fly on, Pioneer. Tell them we were once here.”

In the end, I think there’s a more promising message from this tragic event. Let’s not forget the last thing the astronauts saw:

One world, no borders, all of us citizens of a common home.

Mark Patinkin is a columnist for the Providence Journal.


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