Monday, February 03, 2003

Thoughts on the shuttle disasters, then and now. On the day that the Challenger blew up in 1986, my wife and I just happened to be wandering through the TV department of the Lechmere at the Liberty Tree Mall. We didn't see it live, but we did watch those first terrible moments replayed over and over on several dozen television sets, big and small, an awful, surreal experience.

As I recall, WCVB-TV (Channel 5) had its science correspondent, Dr. Michael Guillen, on the air within minutes. I knew Guillen slightly because he was either going out with or had already married (I can't remember which) a woman with whom I worked at the time. These days, of course, he's better known as the former ABC News science reporter who was going to test the claims of the cloning cult, but who backed off when it became obvious that it was a hoax.

This time it couldn't have been more different. I was at a day-long scouting event with my son, and didn't even hear about the loss of the Columbia until a good hour after it had taken place. We kept hearing more in dribs and drabs throughout the day, but it wasn't until late afternoon that I could see it for myself.

It's different in a much broader way, too. With the Challenger, we experienced a lengthy period of national mourning. Space travel was already becoming routine, but these days the space program borders on the obscure. In 1986, there was a celebrity on board, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. In 2003, the crew was virtually unknown except for Israeli Air Force colonel Ilan Ramon, a hero in his own country but anonymous in the US until his death.

On CNN last night, anchor Aaron Brown choked up for a moment after a particularly emotional report -- a perfectly appropriate reaction, obviously. But at the risk of sounding disrespectful, I suspect that this story -- barring any startling news about the cause of the explosion -- doesn't have the legs of the story that played out more than 16 years ago.

The space program is so peripheral to the culture these days that even when a shuttle mission is taking place, most of us are unaware of it. That takes nothing away from the courage and dedication of the seven astronauts who were killed, or of the others who will take their place. It just is.

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