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To Boldly Go . . .

Oh, you know the rest. Going to space, seriously, is a good idea.

11:00 PM, Feb 8, 2004 • By LARRY MILLER
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I DON'T KNOW ABOUT YOU, but I'm one hundred percent behind a newer, bigger space program. I just have one question: Exactly what have we gotten from the old one besides Velcro and Tang?

Again, I'm a supporter. But every time you ask someone what the fruits were, they always say, "Well, there's Velcro. And Tang. Don't forget Tang."

Actually, let's do forget Tang. But first, Velcro. I have nothing against it. Well, maybe one thing. It's because of Velcro that kids today don't learn to tie their shoes till they're in their thirties. Nice, huh? Seven hours of homework a night, and they can't make a bow. Of course, that's far outweighed by the benefits of being able to fasten a Dixie Cup dispenser to the bathroom wall. I always thought Velcro might have been bigger if a truly giant breakthrough hadn't come along a thousand years ago. You know, that little thing we call BUTTONS.

And now, Tang. Is it still even made? I've done the shopping in our family for 10 years, and I don't recall seeing it, unless they've stuck it in the aisle with Metamucil. I think everyone bought a jar of Tang somewhere around 1970, when it seemed like a neat idea. The next day we all stirred up a glass and learned three things: One, it's awful; two, very few Americans mix their morning juice on a rocket sled at six G's; and three, it's really awful.

I think the only way to get more Americans to sign up for a new space program is to promise to get rid of Velcro and Tang.

An article in USA Today a couple of weeks ago talked about some of the other things we've gotten from outer space and, frankly, it's not so great. "Ski jackets and plastic bags for leftovers," they crowed. That's it? "And don't forget the Space Agency next time you reach for a composite golf club to outdrive your buddies!" Well, we'll certainly get Maxine Waters on board with that one. I don't play golf, so I don't care about outdriving my buddies, although I could really use some help in outdrinking them. Now there's something with bipartisan support. "Hey, everyone, did you hear? No hangovers on the moon!"

WELL, I THINK there is a reason to go into space again, and this time never stop. And it may sound silly, but it comes from Star Trek: "To boldly go where no man has gone before." Of course, it's women, too, and has been for a long time, but I think that sentence is very powerful. "To boldly go where no man has gone before." That's good enough for me.

I've been thinking about space, and progress, and the prices that are sometimes paid for them. I've been thinking about President Reagan's beautiful speech after the Challenger disaster, when he said the crew had "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."

And I've been thinking about another shuttle, another disaster, another tragedy for America and any decent person in the world, and for all the loved ones torn forever from their heroes.

Columbia. Remember? Just a year and change ago. February 1, 2003. One moment they were radioing in for their entry, and the next moment they were, well, touching the face of God.

Let us all say their names one more time: Rick Husband; David Brown; Michael Anderson; Laurel Salton Clark; Kalpana Chawla; Ilan Ramon; Willie McCool.

THERE WAS SOMETHING ELSE on Columbia that trip, something else that went back to God. A Torah. A very tiny Torah.

The Torah is the Jewish bible, the Five Books of Moses, The Old Testament. Ilan Ramon, Israel's first Astronaut, brought this one with him, and it had a story.

Joachim Joseph turned 13 in 1944, in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The former Chief Rabbi of Holland was in there with him, and taught Joseph what he needed to know for his Bar Mitzvah--in the barracks, with 10 other inmates, before dawn, secretly--on this small scroll, this Torah, that the Rabbi had smuggled in.

The Rabbi and the others didn't make it. Joseph did. And he took the Torah with him. He studied in the United States, became a scientist in atmospheric physics, settled in Israel, had a family. Which is where he met the colonel. Ramon was slated to conduct experiments aboard Columbia for an Israeli team. Its leader was Dr. Joseph.

Before leaving for the United States, Ramon went to see Joseph in his home, saw the tiny Torah, and asked about it. When Joseph told him its story, "He (Ramon) fell silent . . . And then he told me, 'You know, my mother and Grandmother are graduates of Auschwitz.'"

Several months later, from Houston, Ilan Ramon called Joachim Joseph and asked if he could take the little Torah to space. His reason was that he thought it would show the world a symbol of how someone can . . . "Go from the depths of hell to the heights of space."