John Chuckman

If you are looking for the kind of stuff you generally find on this subject, or if you are easily offended, please stop reading now.

“Is space exploration worth the risk?” is much repeated. As one who has been fascinated by space since childhood, my immediate response is, “Of course! We are talking about humanity’s destiny, not some hobby.” My second response is, “What great risk?” The loss of two small crews in twenty years is hardly earth-shattering. Think of all the boatloads of Portuguese and Spanish sailors lost in the early days of ocean exploration.

But the question as usually put begs a more basic question of whether the shuttle program has much to do with space exploration. The program’s main focus has always been the military exploitation of earth orbit with a few interesting civilian matters thrown in to help hold the public’s imagination and support. The short-term experiments the shuttle typically carries into orbit are often pretty marginal science done at horrific cost.

NASA’s probes to the planets have produced stunning discoveries, and the total cost of these discoveries is a tiny fraction of what has been spent on programs like the shuttle or Apollo which serve national prestige and the military rather than science. Actually, the space shuttles have robbed the U.S. of a fleet of more dependable and less costly conventional rockets. They have even blocked science at times through delays or through the need to hurl probes in awkward paths. A huge investment is locked up in this ungainly fleet of machines with fragile technology from the 1970s, and just their regular maintenance is costly.

The single most repeated word around the shuttle’s failure is unquestionably “tragedy,” but despite the irresistible impulse of Americans to heap abuse on that poor word, it was nothing of the kind. It was an accident, and it was an accident in a very high-risk occupation where a number of accidents over time are unavoidable.

During that same day in America alone, likely more than a hundred people were killed in car accidents, about forty people were murdered, hundreds were raped or mugged, and several hundred children were seriously abused. Were we to consider the planet’s other 5 3/4 billion people, the day’s toll becomes horrific beyond telling with starvation, war, AIDS, and many other terrible afflictions and cruelties.

Were the astronauts “heroes?” I think bright-eyed, daring adventurers might be a fair description, the kind of people who drive high-speed race cars or who climb Mount Everest, but heroes? I don’t think this much over-used word applies here any more than it does to the people who kick footballs or box for a living.

Articles along the lines of “Don’t Forget, Bush Cut NASA’s Budget!” deserve heartfelt contempt. Several liberal or progressive sites on the Internet featured just such material the day after the disaster. My memory is greatly strained trying to come up with something comparably indecent, but then America’s political landscape is pretty thickly- littered with idiot-speak.

So, too, the many day-after reports of presumed experts saying “I told you so!” concerning the shuttle’s safety program. This may not be about politics, but it is truly an ugly, scrabbling effort at Andy Warhol’s “fifteen minutes of fame.”

The most unforgettable words of the Challenger disaster, seventeen years ago, came as the whole world gasped watching live television pictures of the shuttle exploding into a shower of fireballs. A NASA announcer felt moved to accompany these pictures with something like, “Obviously, we have a major malfunction.”

No words quite so striking came this time, but we did have a senior NASA executive telling us that he was having “a bad day,” an impressive observation he saw fit to repeat several times in the course of a press conference that communicated close to nothing in the way of genuine information. Truly, one could hope that people with so little to say might just avoid speaking.

Vivid still in memory is the garbled line of the first astronaut to step on the moon, Neil Armstrong, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Apart from having the flat-footed thud of a committee’s attempt at inspiration, the plain fact is the statement as given had no meaning (It was supposed to include, “…for a man…”). It is gibberish. Imagine Christopher Columbus wading ashore after months of exhausting effort and praising the King of Sweden for his generous support, although in Christopher’s day the absence of bellowing media would have left his meaningless comment to die on the echoes of the surf.

America is like a giant floodplain for a daily overflow of verbal effluvium. False marketing claims, insincere personal endorsements, political trash, religious hucksterism, military euphemism, noise and nonsense of every description all sweep in a great torrent across the plain each day. It must be very difficult for many of the world’s people to sort out whether anything meaningful is ever being said.

However, this was the only occasion I recall Mr. Bush even approaching eloquence. He kept it short and sweet, and you can’t go too wrong quoting Isaiah, one of the most beautiful books in the Bible, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens. Who created all these? He who brings out the starry hosts one by one and calls them each by name. Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.”

But when I heard those words and Mr. Bush’s reflection on the theme of the Creator’s knowing each of the names of those seven lost souls, I could only ask, “Yes, Mr. Bush, and do you think the Creator knows the names of each of the poor dead children of Iraq too? Does He know the names of the thousands who will die as you needlessly rain more death upon them?”

And then I recalled Mark Twain’s bitter response in The Mysterious Stranger to a related sentiment from the Bible’s book of Matthew, “Not a sparrow falls without His seeing it.” “But it still falls, just the same. What’s the good of seeing it fall?”