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How Octavia Butler remembered the fallen Columbia astronauts on the NewsHour

One of the most devastating disasters in the history of American space exploration occurred two decades ago today.

On Feb. 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia fell apart during its reentry to Earth at the end of its 16-day mission, killing all seven astronauts on board: David M. Brown, Rick D. Husband, Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Kalpana Chawla, Michael P. Anderson, William C. McCool and Ilan Ramon.

Back then, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer (as the PBS NewsHour was then known) marked the tragedy with coverage of the national memorial service, but also a philosophical discussion about the sociocultural significance of astronauts and what space travel itself represents for humanity.

Watch the full segment in our player above.

Among the panelists was acclaimed science fiction author Octavia Butler, who offered insight into the place that space and its explorers occupy in our collective imagination. Butler, who died in 2006, is a key figure in the Afrofuturist genre, which blends elements of sci-fi and fantasy with Black culture and history. Her novel "Kindred" was adapted into a Hulu TV series last year.

Talking with anchor Jim Lehrer, Butler said she was impressed by the hard work of the Columbia mission's astronauts, adding that their contributions were "both fascinating and necessary to us as a species." She recalled how as a child she would watch space missions take off on television, and the influence the astronauts who crewed them had on her own dreams and her career as a writer.

"I think they're our surrogates because they go where we can't go," Butler said. "And in a sense, they take us along with them." In 2021, NASA named its Perseverance rover's landing site in Mars' Jezero Crater "Octavia E. Butler Landing" in her honor.

The STS-107 Crew of the space shuttle Columbia. From left to right: Mission Specialist 1 David M. Brown, Commander Rick D. Husband, Mission Specialist 4 Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist 2 Kalpana Chawla, Payload Commander Michael P. Anderson, Pilot William C. McCool, Payload Specialist 1 Ilan Ramon. Image credit: NASA

Lehrer also spoke with historian Roger Launius, then of the Air and Space Museum in Washington, science writer Timothy Ferris and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Tyson reflected how astronauts hold a special place in American culture due in part to the way humanity has always valorized those who've risked their lives to be on the frontier of discovery.

In our modern context, astronauts occupy the role of pioneers who've taken on the dangerous mission of exploring the stars, he said. Tyson added that we should be proud that brave and curious people like astronauts, and the terrestrial explorers who came before them, live in our midst.

"We've already mapped the continents and the oceans so we look around and where is that next frontier that's going to capture the soul of curiosity of human beings? It is space," Tyson said. "There's no doubt about it. It is a privilege of 20th century [research] — now, into the 21st century — that space exists as that frontier for us all."

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