A Human Tragedy

THE FIERY END of Challenger and her crew is history now, sealed forever into the most uncomfortable corner of our consciousness. Barely a week later, it is as though all of it happened long ago: the remarkably diverse crew walks to the NASA van, the spacecraft lifts majestically skyward, and disaster. A shower of smoke and debris and the booster rockets crazily flailing away, trailing a jagged streamer of cloudy exhaust and diverting us from staring at that ugly fireball. Seven people and man's most magnificent machine, gone in a second. From life to death to nothing. In a second.

The images, of the explosion, of the aggrieved families, of the memorial services and the schoolchildren and the headlines, will be replayed on television and in our minds for a while yet. And the inquiry, and the experts, and the what-ifs will make us remember. As they should. But through it all, we wonder: why is it that this accident that took seven lives will last in our memories, while the plane crashes and the earthquakes and the mudslides of the last year seem to blur together, faceless thousands of fatalities already forgotten?

The answer lies in the simple knowledge--confirmed in a shocking way last week--that we are mortal, here for a time and then gone. We are rarely exposed to that truth, never on live national television, and when we are it is cruel and harsh because we mostly ignore the prospect of death and disaster so that we may go on in life. To dwell means to be paralyzed, numbed into self-consciousness and fear. Then why did some of us stare as we did at the 10th and 20th replay of the shuttle explosion? Because we couldn't pull our eyes away. Not from the fireball, not from the eerie pre-flight scenes of the astronauts, not from the sight of grieving family members confused by the evil twist of emotions in the moments after launch. They couldn't believe it, and neither could we. Still harder to accept is that man's vulnerability was bared by the failure of the Challenger, a technological miracle designed to shield man from the most hostile of elements, and from death itself.

Of all the members of the Challenger crew, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe was probably most like us, both in her wide-eyed approach to the space program and her own sense of fate. She once told an interviewer that she wasn't concerned about the inherent--until now, only threatened--danger of spacefaring. Instead, she said, she felt a greater risk each time she crossed a particularly notorious intersection in her hometown of Concord, N.H. She joked about it, but clearly couldn't have known the irony of her words. For if she had died in a car accident in Concord, instead of in the worst disaster in 25 years of manned spaceflight, most of us probably wouldn't have cared less. It has taken the cathartic postmortem of recent days to give meaning to her death, and to her life. It is a sad truth, one unintended lesson that this everyday schoolteacher left behind.

Dissenting Opinion

THE MAJORITY OPINION looks backward and dodges important questions about the recent technological tragedy. Rather than gleaning the fact of our mortality from the death of Christa McAuliffe and the other six astronauts, the editorial should have posed questions to NASA. It should take something less than the worst disaster in a quarter century of manned spaceflight to point out to us that people do die. We should be asking: Was the shuttle accident due to damaged fuel tanks or broken turbine blades? How can these mechanical faults, if they in fact were the cause, be avoided in future flights? These queries need answers.