Cowboy Bebop is a few years old, but I'm still catching up as best as I can. If you haven't heard of it, it's a series set in the late 21st century, where people hop between star systems as effortlessly as we cross oceans and Earth has become a backwater planet. It's got quirky characters (in a good way), a great jazz score, and stories unlike any I've seen anywhere else, animated or otherwise.
A little while ago I was finally getting around to watching episode 19, "Wild Horses," in which our hero Spike spends half the episode getting his ship, the Swordfish II, repaired by a cranky old mechanic. That mechanic is Doohan, a pilot who also happens to be the one who gave Spike the Swordfish II in the first place. Doohan also spends a lot of time berating his assistant Miles about getting the parts—most of them obsolete—needed to repair an old relic. No, he shouts, he doesn't want to upgrade to the latest and greatest automated systems. "Do you want to use a machine, or do you want it to use you?"
Eventually the Swordfish II is spaceworthy again. Doohan and Miles return to restoring the old spaceship and Spike returns to his friends in orbit, where they're trying to figure out how to stop a bunch of pirates that are using a virus to disable ships' comm and flight systems.
Now, any space junkie worth his or her salt would have immediately recognized Doohan's old ship from the earlier darkness-enshrouded shot of its underside, so I wasn't surprised to see a 20th-century space shuttle being towed out of the hangar. But I was completely unprepared for what I saw written on its side: Columbia.
And then there was Miles, looking straight into the camera—straight at me—with an expression that said, That's right. She's back because she's got a job to do.
I jumped up and cheered when I saw my old gal on the way to the rescue, at the hands of a curmudgeon who was ready to show all the young hotshots how even an "obsolete" ship can accomplish anything with the right pilot. I howled with laughter every time Spike and Doohan displayed macho, balls-to-the-wall reliance on raw piloting skill and dead reckoning. I whooped when Doohan manoeuvred Columbia to gently catch the Swordfish II in its bay. (In retrospect, I'm glad I was alone while I was watching.)
I wasn't in the least bit surprised to discover that Cartoon Network decided not to go ahead with this episode's scheduled airing in early February, owing to the Columbia disaster a little over a week earlier. I was, however, disappointed.
If anything, "Wild Horses" was the perfect tribute to the astronauts who died on February 1. After Columbia disintegrated, the question that immediately came to many people's minds was, Now what? What will happen to manned space flights? Some pundits wondered why we even bothered with manned space flight anymore, pointing out that the tangible benefits were few compared to the risks.
"Wild Horses" showed why they couldn't be more wrong. Granted, it demonstrates quite dramatically that space flight is dangerous, but it also shows us the fundamental appeal of the space program: it fires the imagination and encourages us to dream. When Columbia takes to the air, Miles's eyes light up as he exclaims, "We're flying! We're really flying!" Doohan smiles, as if recognizing the moment when a person's world opens up to possibilities previously only dreamed of.
And when you think about it, there wouldn't be a Cowboy Bebop if it weren't for the space program. People had already dreamed of space flight, but from the moment Sputnik was launched and the space race began, the dream of travelling among to the stars became common currency—and we all looked on in a mixture of awe and envy at the men and women who got to make the trip. That's why we all felt it when those seven astronauts died, the same way we felt it when the Challenger exploded. "Wild Horses" quietly reminds us that we can't get to the one-seater spaceships of Cowboy Bebop without the space program and all its inherent risks. It also reminds us of why we admire the brave souls who willingly take on those risks, and in echoing the Columbia tragedy it doesn't diminish our enjoyment of the story; if anything, it makes an already excellent episode all the more powerful.
Cartoon Network went about this the wrong way. They should have aired "Wild Horses" with a closing title card dedicating the episode to the Columbia crew. I doubt a single viewer would have disagreed.