As the Space Shuttle program comes to an end with this final flight of Atlantis, I've been thinking again about the value of such lofty endeavors. I published this short essay in KM Magazine in 2003 after the Columbia tragedy.
Why are so many of us so deeply affected by those searing contrails?
Is it possible that—about suffering—they were wrong, the Old Masters? Brueghel painted Landscape with the Fall of Icarus to suggest that even magnificent failures are just a peripheral splash on the vast canvas of disparate industry. "It takes place while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along," WH Auden wrote. But perhaps Brueghel assumed that Icarus fell unnoticed because he flew unnoticed.
Should we soar so high? That question is inevitably asked this week in articles and conversations around the world. We know that there are innumerable innovations with terrestrial applications. We know, too, more about ourselves and our ability to work together in large and small teams despite differences of profession, gender, culture and politics.
But there are larger lessons, as well. Most valuable of these is simply that it can be done. We look up at the blue meadows of the moon and see footprints. We look at the red speck of Mars and see the tracks of a little erector-set robot. We look up when we hear the sonic booms and see men and women commuting to space the way we take the carpool lane, living lives as mundane and as uncertain as the rest of us.
The real knowledge value of programs like the shuttle and the space station are not scratch-resistant Ray-Bans or electronic noses. It's understanding that "impossible" is one of those words (like "hate") that we probably use more often than we should. We are only just beginning to understand how collective forms of confidence and accomplishment impact on an organization's ability. That, too, is knowledge that floats gently to earth.
Yes, Icarus fell. But Daedalus flew on.
(See the original poem and painting HERE)