Recollections... Waking on a clear weekend morning here in Colorado, casually logging on to check my Email, seeing the banner, "NASA Loses Contact With Columbia." Turning on CNN. Watching more CNN. Explaining it to my daughter, then 11. Wondering how it had happened, what it would mean.
The technical answers have long since been settled. The human answers, as always, were not as simple. They drift out in fragments over the course of history, debated, challenged, finally settling but never quite settled.
Worth it? Of course it was not, in a logical sense, worth losing seven people for a science mission whose returns would not have been of great importance. Death, as Ulysses Grant once said of war, "is cruelty and you cannot refine it." Nor can you romanticize it. Nor, when there gross errors in judgment made, can you excuse it.
I submit, however, that any calculation about the worthiness of the voyage is incomplete, nay, unfair, unless it takes into account the desires and motivations of the voyagers. The seven people on Columbia did not just accept the risk of venturing, in a craft built by fallible humans, into the most hostile realm we know. They sought the risk. They spent years training, competing, and demanding the right to take the risk.
Whatever judgments we might make on the costs vs. the returns of their efforts as explorers, the explorers themselves had no doubts. Every one of them was a bright, accomplished, highly educated human being. Not one was foolish enough to think there was no risk. Not one hesitated.
Indeed, they did everything they possibly could to qualify themselves to stand out among their peers and earn the chance to risk their lives in a cause they deemed worthy.
By that standard alone, they were the best our species had to offer. They were sent forth into the last unknown ocean, explorers in an age when most people in their society place high value on safety, comfort, and surety.