Finally today, when I was a kid, I wanted to be an astronaut. 

I plastered my bedroom wall with a large map of the moon -- landing sites carefully selected -- and pictures of space voyagers and their craft.  Two things inspired me -- the sheer romance of the work and the vastness of the enterprise.

Columbia's crew bounded into the Florida sun 17 days ago, looking every bit as smitten by the lure of space as I was 40 years ago. Despite 16 days of grueling work, they peppered family and friends with e-mails and photos.  They played at times, like puppies.  And as they prepared to return home yesterday, Dave Brown joked that he didn't want to come back.

The shock of what happened next has benumbed us.  We ought to honor and cherish the courage and dash of the dead, but we cheat them if we leave it at that.  From the moment each of us realizes that the night's glinting lights represent stars and planets and other exotic destinations, we feel an instinctive urge to explore, to pioneer the realm of swirling wonder, to edge closer to our creator and to ourselves.

There is glory in life and in every created thing, if only we have the courage to embrace the challenge of discovery and the humility to admire every novelty along the way.  The Columbia seven knew this, and after 16 glorious days, they crossed from the heavens to heaven itself.  Theirs is a bequest of exuberance and joy, not fear and sorrow. 

Mourn them, but also remember what they were, what we saw when they strode happily toward their destiny.  They were an expression in flesh and spirit of our better selves.