Columbia in Space

The Space Shuttle Columbia embarking on her first voyage.

With the Space Shuttle Atlantis landing today at Edwards Air Force Base, America’s space shuttle program is officially finished.  The Columbia was the first space shuttle to orbit the Earth and then return for re-use. This pioneering orbiter was named after the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe, the Columbia Rediviva. The NASA mission patch for their vessel’s maiden voyage nicely highlights this parallel (image below).

All the five space shuttles were named for seafaring ships. Here is a video discussing the space shuttles and their namesakes. A sailing ship of old may have met its end foundering on a rocky coast. As you may remember, the modern day Columbia’s tragic destruction happened during her 28th mission.

She met her end not on coastal rocks but on the Earth’s outer coast of ever-thickening atmosphere; these air particles get compressed and so heated by the vessel’s supersonic speed—24 times the speed of sound. Just as water will find its way into a damaged ship’s hull, so hot gases infiltrated a small area of damaged heat tiles and into Columbia’s left wing. The damage spread and soon the vessel’s body disintegrated.

While most of us are not called to take the risks of being an astronaut, the majority of us are descended from ancestors who risked coming here to a new country. I hope, that as a person living in these times, I may keep their spirit of discovery and growth alive. Growth and discovery today needs must be very different than it was 200 years ago, but we still must find our way.

The Columbia Rediviva in a Squall.

NASA mission patch from Columbia's maiden voyage.


Columbia—in the New York Times

From around 1775 until the 1920s, America had an allegorical character symbolizing the nation’s civic virtues, and she was called Columbia. A week before arriving here in the District, I happily discovered that Ellen Berg, the most widely cited expert on Miss Columbia, lives inside the Capital Beltway.

In her writings, and when I interviewed her back in the spring, Ms. Berg states that Miss Columbia’s heyday was during the Civil War. Cartoonist Thomas Nast of Harper’s Magazine, illustrators Currier & Ives, and so many others used her as a symbol for the United States in their work. Later, while doing my occasional reading of the New York Times‘ very excellent Civil War history blog, Disunion, it hit me—Ellen Berg’s expertise would be perfect here.

Having received her okay to pitch them, I networked to the right person, and he took interest and Ellen took it from there. As published on 2 July, Ms. Berg writes a much more cogent description of Miss Columbia than I possibly could. And there are wonderful illustrations by the aforementioned artists. You’ll find it for your edification and enjoyment here.

And speaking of fruit…

One of those particularly human things that I’m quite good at is finding significance and pattern in various events where no such pattern may exist. On 21 June 2010, two nights before I’m vacating my Brooklyn apartment, I go out to the small grocer at Seventh Avenue and 10th Street in Park Slope. Greeting me at the door was a display of blueberries—that’d been grown by Columbia Fruit Farms of Hammonton, New Jersey!

Boy oh boy, did that feel like a sign! Yes, with my creative resolve in place, so too was my sensitivity to all things Columbia. In days past, maybe I was numb to the name? No matter, seeing blueberries thus labeled helped me feel my path was open and waiting.

So last night, I’m in the District of Columbia and I walk down from Columbia Heights to the grocer at 14th and W and there they are once more. The week before I’d been eating blueberries from another Hammonton grower and wondered if the Columbia label would jump out at me again. And man, let me tell you—that it did right after I started my blog, you know that means something…or not. I now want bigger signs affirming my path—fiscal sponsorship would be a great one!

Columbia Fruit Growers (seen in Columbia Heights)

It seems that Columbia Fruit Growers gets their name from Hammonton’s nearby Columbia Road (the name Airport Road seems to be usurping the Columbia name). Columbia Road is crossed by Union Road. This may suggest this area was developed right after the Civil War. Geographic naming patterns following that great conflagration will be a topic in and of itself for a later date.

And you may ask yourself, why was this guy checking out whence came his blueberries? I’m a blueberry geek. I watch the blueberry provenance march up the coast from Florida, into Georgia and North Carolina. New Jersey’s cultivated blueberries are delicious, but in Maine they can be harvested from the wild (a delicacy I have yet to enjoy). When I see a box labeled Nova Scotia—well, I know it’s all over until next year.

I hope to someday stop by and say hello at Columbia Fruit Growers. And, I look forward to going to Columbia, Maine, where I see reference to something called a blueberry barren. A blueberry barren?  Man I wanna see one of those!