I’ve heard pensioners remember where they were when Pearl Harbor was attacked. Folks of my parents’ generation mark where they were when JFK was assassinated in 1963 (just months before my birth).

I thought my “life moment” was the destruction of Challenger in 1986 — I was sitting at the military entrance station in Knoxville, just preparing to ship out to Lackland AFB for six weeks of basic training in the US Air Force.

Then, I thought it was the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 — I was in a meeting at work, when somebody entered, saying that a plane had hit one of the towers. Soon, we all knew that our country and way of life were under attack.

Now, another life moment. The dangers of space travel have been brought home once again with the destruction of the shuttle Columbia on re-entry. Mach 16 and 40 miles up. There is no escape from something like that. The debris field extends from Arizona to Louisiana.

So when some child asks me, years from now, where was I when Columbia exploded and streaked across the Southern skies, what will I tell them?

Darla and I were sitting at a greasy spoon diner that we happened upon. We’d just finished at the secret dog park, and had to visit Petco for something or the other. A couple of doors down was a little diner, and we decided that sounded good for breatkfast. Darla and I were chatting, sharing our thoughts over coffee, and I heard one of the wait-staff gabbing about how it was raining in Texas. Then, in horror, I realized what she was talking about, and that the rain wasn’t water, it was debris. Darla and I hurried to finish our breakfast, and dashed home to see every network covering live this incredible tragedy. I taped two network’s coverage, watched the many video clips played over and over and over again. After a few hours, I just couldn’t take any more. It was done, and so was I.

I feel a great sense of loss for NASA. I feel an overwhelming sense of loss for the families and friends of the lost explorers.

Mostly, though, I feel a distinct sense of loss for the future. I can’t help but believe that this tragedy, and the loss incurred — human, experiential, dollars, knowledge, science — will be too great for NASA to bear. In a climate of war on many fronts, a declining economy, and a sense that manned exploration of space isn’t paying the dividends that are being sold, I can’t help but believe that manned exploration of space will slow to crawl. I couldn’t begin to think what would happen to the ISS. Could it be mothballed? Would it be allowed to spiral earthward, suffering the same fate as Columbia, Mir and Skylab before it?

I hope our children can live with the decision we make about faring off this fragile blue marble — it’s them, after all, that will bear the brunt of those decisions.