A dove among eagles: teaching us about space and ourselves

TEACHING is not normally dangerous. So there was nothing to prepare the nation for the tragedy that overtook Sharon Christa McAuliffe when the space shuttle exploded Tuesday. The goal of this lively, inquisitive, and unpretentious high school teacher from Concord, N.H., was to do what all good teachers do: make the strange familiar and the complex understandable. ``I want to demystify NASA and spaceflight,'' she said when she was chosen from among 11,000 applicants last summer. She hoped, she added, to ``humanize the technology of the space age.''

That so much attention should have been focused on Mrs. McAuliffe does not mean that the world feels any less compassion for the families and friends of the other crew members. But astronauts, tracing their lineage back to the early test pilots, have lived for years with a professional awareness of the dangers of their frontiersmanship. Teachers usually lead quieter, more reflective lives.

The choice of a teacher as NASA's first ``citizen'' in space was meant to emphasize, at least symbolically, the maturity and relative safety of the shuttle program. It was a conscious decision to put a dove among the eagles. Hence the double measure of shock felt by the nation.

Does that mean that McAuliffe was somehow unsuited to the mission? Far from it. There is a strain of character in the best of teachers -- and she was by all accounts one of the best -- that loves adventure. Part reporter, part researcher, part explorer, a good teacher combines a skill in communication with the thrill of discovery. McAuliffe, blending all those talents, was alive to the subject of her research. On the surface, that subject was the nature of manned spaceflight. But her real subject was an inward and more introspective flight. Her job, in a sense, was to report on herself -- on how an intelligent onlooker would respond both to the majesty of space and the intricacies of man's highest technologies.

It was a role to which she was well suited. In teaching history and social studies, she emphasized the importance not only of rulers but of the ruled. ``Ordinary people can make a contribution, too,'' she told the Monitor last summer. ``The early astronauts were the modern explorers,'' she said, adding that explorers have always been followed by other people. ``I look on myself as one of the first of the `other people.' '' Her role was that of ordinary citizen speaking to other ordinary citizens.

We never got to hear that message. But no life, however ordinary, is ever lived without leaving powerful lessons for the future. What can be learned? Among many things, four stand out.

First, spaceflight is dangerous. We sometimes overlook that simple fact in an era that romanticizes technological prowess. Our television age blurs the distinctions between the special-effects explosions on entertainment shows and the real ones on the news. It makes the risky appear routine. The result: a false sense of safety in the face of danger, a lulling of alertness, a lowering of the guard.

Second, space is no place for personal hype. The media, thirsting for heroes, would have us focus on one person to the exclusion of others -- which, to some extent, it has done with McAuliffe. Her role, however, was not that of star but of team-player. We forget that in the exploration of this frontier (unlike the frontiers of the Old West), there is no room for the lean and rugged loner. Spaceflight places exacting demands on hundreds of individuals, all of whom must work in concert. Success comes from group operations and committee endeavors -- a hard lesson for a self-reliant society that sometimes tends to scorn committee work and denigrate institutions.

Third, this frontier is still magnificent. To see Earth from the perspective of space, as we've been seeing it for years in color photographs, is awe-inspiring. But pictures, as teachers and reporters well know, need captions. Technology brings us the images, but only people can explain to other people what it's like to stand outside the world and look down upon it. The role of the teacher in space (like that of any teacher) is to charge the visual with the verbal, to make captions that give new freshness to familiar views. It's also to talk simply and directly to the children -- while allowing the adults to peek over their shoulders. It is to McAuliffe's credit that she glimpsed something of the vast significance of this endeavor to ``humanize'' space.

Finally, the space program is still worth pursuing. Humanity has been lifting itself up from the earth, figuratively speaking, for centuries. That process will continue: There are too many good reasons to keep rising. Progress comes not from those who let the forces of fear keep them earthbound, but from those who spring back from their jolts, continue to take risks, and keep going. To keep on rising, after all, is a tribute America can surely pay to Christa McAuliffe.

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