Challenger's wider mission

IT is perhaps of the schoolchildren, millions in America alone, waiting expectantly for the Challenger space mission this week, that the tragic explosion after liftoff most makes one think. New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe was among the passengers. She was to teach two lessons from space, which were to be viewed in hundreds of schools via the Public Broadcasting Service, during the six-day mission. The loss of Mrs. McAuliffe and the members of the Columbia crew makes us all reach for words of compassion and comfort. Spaceflight needs to be viewed in the broadest of frameworks -- as more than a personal adventure. It is an aspect of the human race's efforts to comprehend and master its universe.

From ocean voyages and the discovery of continents on Earth a few centuries ago, to the first steps by man on the moon's surface in 1969, to the hurtling of the Voyager II spacecraft past the planet Uranus's moons at the outer reaches of our solar system just this week, human familiarity with this magnificent universe has been accelerating. It is in the context of this larger adventure that this week's tragic event should be viewed.

Pioneers endure risks.

Columbus and other navigators lost whole crews. The first Apollo flight team, astronauts Grissom, White, and Chaffee, perished in a simulated launch in 1967. The disabled Apollo 13 had to be swung in a special arc around the moon in 1970 to be returned safely. A special honor is reserved for those who undertake such adventures.

On balance, the manned space program has been relatively free of serious mishap. There have been failures of equipment to function. In the current Challenger shuttle series, delays were frequent, often caused by misreadings of the weather. Disputes have arisen over the mix of military and commercial missions for the Challenger craft. The space program's top administrator has come under a legal cloud for private transactions. An air of impatience about the space program, and competition for federal funding for space exploration at a time of budget constraint, have been evident. But all this must be set against reasonable expectations for an experimental program that to this point has had remarkable success.

``I am a teacher first,'' Mrs. McAuliffe said of her role in the space mission.

Surely all are heartened and instructed by this sense of purpose which embraced her and her fellow space voyagers.

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