Shuttle tragedy hits close to home: Two children of space program share their thoughts

It’s not how anyone wants to start their weekend or any day for that matter. I woke up Saturday morning to a FOX News Alert that the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated upon re-entry to the atmosphere.
Two things crossed my mind at the time: sadness that seven people lost their lives exploring the great unknown and “how will children react?”
With wall-to-wall coverage on television and Sunday newspapers, how would the children absorb all this tragic information?
My two nephews, Ryan and Matt Bielli, live in Slidell, La., far away from any debris field and the Kennedy Space Center, but those two boys have been around space for most of their lives.
The school they attended in Cocoa, Fla. was Challenger 7 Elementary School. Their classes would go to the playground on launch days to watch the Shuttle lift off. They knew when they heard two sonic booms that the Shuttle would be landing safely soon. The Daily Herald talked to the Bielli boys to get their reaction.
“I saw the explosion on television and it reminded me of the Challenger,” said 13-year-old Ryan Bielli. “It made me think of the seven people on the ship. Two women, the first Israeli astronauts. It was a very frightening feeling that they had no way out.”
“I felt really bad,” said 10-year-old Matt Bielli. “I felt really bad knowing that people died as they risked their lives trying to do things that would better our world.”
Ryan was part of two ceremonies at Challenger 7 Elementary while he attended the school. He was part of a program the fifth graders put on to observe the anniversary of the Challenger explosion every year.
“I was very proud to attend Challenger 7 Elementary,” Ryan said. “This was a school named after seven heroes. I did a report in fifth grade about Ronald McNair one of the seven who died in the Challenger. Our program helped other students remember that these astronauts risk their lives everytime they travel to space.”
It was tough to think of my nephews, whom I love dearly as interview subjects, but for me to understand this tragedy, I needed to talk to them. They have been to the Kennedy Space Center. They have watched the Shuttle launch and land in person. They were as close to the matter as I could possibly get.
I asked them their feelings when they see the American Flag at half-staff.
“It makes me proud and said,” said Ryan. “I am proud to think of what I have in life. It makes me proud to know that the seven astronauts sacrificed for mankind. They knew that there is no flight that is perfect and the risks involved. It made me sad to think that there was no way for them to escape. It was sad watching a big ball of fire coming from the sky on TV. It is an overwhelming feeling, thinking of the sacrifice that they made.”
“I am sad when I see the flag at half-staff,” said Matt. “The astronauts were doing things to help our country. The space program has launched satellites and other stuff that make our world better. But I always kept going back to thinking about the astronauts.”
Just like it was during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, kids have questions about why it happened. The Bielli boys were no different.
“It was hard for my mom to explain what had happened,” said Ryan. “She said it is something that happens once in a lifetime. You remember where you are when something this tragic happens. She told me she was in 11th grade history class when her school was told of the incident. We talked about how sad it was. How the astronauts had families that will be very sad and will miss them forever. You could see by the expressions on my Mom’s face that it was hard for her to explain to us what had happened.”
Growing up near the space program, my youngest nephew Matt had always had a little dream in him to go to space. When asked if he still wanted to go to space, he got really quiet.
“I’d like to go to space someday, but I am kind of scared,” said Matt as his voice cracked. “I would be afraid that something would happen and I wouldn’t get to see my family.”
“This is something I will never forget,” said Ryan. “I’d like to someday go back to Challenger 7 and become a teacher to help them learn more about the sacrifice these heroes have made.”