Challenger's Mistaken Enterprise

Taking Note

THE SPACESHIP ON TV exploded again and again, a fiery kaleidoscope of ever-shrinking fragments. A symbol that belonged to my youth was desecrated on the same screen that had proclaimed the invulnerability of all such voyagers that held true to all-American virtues of quiet loyalty and bravery. But all was not lost, for the television promised an even greater successor: yes, Star Trek IV was on its way at Warp Factor 9 to continue the mission of the atomized Starship Enterprise.

Thought I was eulogizing the Challenger? As far as I'm concerned, there is little difference between the two vessels. Let me qualify that: some might call me insensitive for comparing Star Trek and the space shuttle. Kirk, Spock, and McCoy are only fictional characters, while McAuliffe and her fellow crew-mates were real people--or should I say, Real People. The Challenger crew was treated just like those wacky rustics who were paraded before the nation by Skip Stevenson on the old "Real People" television program--proof that, by God, even an ordinary mother of two can make it in space. That's Incredible, isn't it folks.

For the TV-bred generation of the sixties, space travel was Star Trek. The space walks and moon landings were pretty tame stuff compared to the phaser-blasting antics of Captain Kirk and his cosmic crew. Apollo was a warm-up, a boring story for adults who couldn't handle the real drama of rampaging Romulans and galaxy-sized amoebas.

Tom Wolfe devoted a whole book (and a three-hour movie) to investigating the strands of American cultural identity woven into The Right Stuff; and even then he never really put his finger on it. But it took only 60 minutes a week for Star Trek to illustrate those values: loyalty to friends (how many times had Kirk risked his ship to pull Scottie or Bones out of a jam?), an almost reckless disregard for personal safety, and commitment to self-selected duty. These are the values reflected in the equilibrium between Spock's cold-blooded logic and Dr. McCoy's mercurial emotionalism.

What struck a 12-year-old as a profound moral insight will seem a bit preachy and simple minded to a 21-year-old jaded by Divorce Court and Miami Vice. The Star Trek Movie moguls realized that the Enterprise was a bit of an anachronism, a rusty symbol from a more idealistic and less sophisticated age. Consequently, they sacrificed the symbolism of the Enterprise to the necessity of plot twists and flashy special effects.

ENTERPRISE, THEN Challenger. This isn't the first time Art has beaten Life to the pages of Newsweek; remember The China Syndrome and Three Mile Island. And it won't be the last. In the years prior to this week's tragedy, NASA had been straining its PR muscles, turning a rocket-powered bronco ride into what had begun to seem like a drive in the country. There had been so many shuttle flights flashing across our skies and our screens; they had become the norm, not the extraordinary exception.

Portraying spaceflights as daredevil enterprises of mystically endowed "single-combat warriors" was out-dated--and outmoded by the shuttle. Safe and reliable, the shuttle served the interests of RCA corporate chiefs and Star Wars fanatics alike. It would, of course, be hard to advocate putting millions of dollars of technology into space if the transport were to blow up every twenty trips or so. The point is, after all, that the shuttle was not a rocket, not a missile with a sardine-can-like warhead of astronauts. In the public mind, its very essence was "to shuttle," to safely carry human beings into space--and back again. The shuttle was in this sense a symbol of security that belied the otherwise well-recognized dangers of our technological age.

Unfortunately, NASA's administrators forgot that while society can afford to lose a few commuters every year in the name of commerce (even the space-bound sort), that's only if the corpses don't get onto network TV. Putting McAuliffe on board to prove that the shuttle is the People Express of space was recklessly tempting fate's penchant for dramatic irony.

When a woman's life becomes the centerpiece of a media blitz, her death will be fitted into the follow-up campaign, somehow. Stirring exhortations, by President Reagan among others, to continue to build space shuttle technology in the spirit and wake of the Challenger have already begun. Don't be surprised if a new shuttle is christened the "Christa." But, as mass media fitted McAuliffe and crew onto the TV screen and the feature page, the human individuality of those heros was cropped out; they were reduced to the equivalent of television characters.

Stalin tells us that one death is a tragedy, a thousand deaths a statistic. He should have added that seven TV personalities makes a mini-series.