FOR Americans, 1986 began with the Challenger space shuttle disaster and ended with the Voyager round-the-world triumph. The shuttle mission was a massive organizational undertaking. The inquiry into the Challenger explosion revealed a human system that almost willfully failed to respond to safety warnings.
The Voyager project was, by comparison, an almost whimsical private enterprise. It appeared to succeed partly because of the independence of its principals, who could insist on taking responsibility for every detail.
The year ended, however, with an institutional disppointment of another kind - the Iran-contra affair. Here the organizational failure appears to have been a confusion of motives and means in foreign policy, a refusal to take open responsibility for actions which were ill-considered and would have been stopped if they had been made known.
The Iran-contra secrecy seals failed and the undertaking spun out of control for all the world to see. No one in the White House has yet really taken responsibility for what went wrong.
As a result of the Challenger tragedy and subsequent inquiry, a safer vehicle and a more responsive space agency now appear certain. A similar result, one hopes, will emerge from the reaction, hearings, and corrective steps prompted by the Iran affair: Looking back at this time next year, we might well be able to report on a chastened foreign policy establishment that makes decisions with integrity, consistency, and full accountability.
Public institutions can at times be sources of great pride and at times sources of dismay, much like individuals and families. Particularly when the institution is the American presidency, which has had its ups and downs the past three decades, the public responds emotionally. Because of the Iran affair, this is showing up not only in the President's approval rating, which has dropped, but also in a decline of public confidence in the direction the country is headed.
Putting more of the year's events on the table for appraisal, however, 1986 shows a familiar mix of pluses and minuses, which makes the US experience look more ordinary.
The corrupt Marcos regime in the Philippines has been replaced by the spirited leadership of Corazon Aquino.
The inhumane Soviet incursion into Afghanistan has just marked its seventh anniversary, amid some signs that the Kremlin would like to find some way out. South Africa's resistance to ending its apartheid system still tries the patience of its citizens and tests the ingenuity of outsiders to have any impact.
Another year has passed in which debtor nations have been able to sidle around their huge debt burdens, with a little help from their creditors.
At least the shell of the OPEC oil cartel has survived another year of world oil surplus, with prices edging upward.
The NATO alliance was aghast at the radical arms control measures proposed by Washington and Moscow at Reykjavik, but the prospect remains for more modest agreements in the year ahead.
Asian nations on the Pacific rim continued to show the greatest economic dynamism - and the stresses and strains of their own regional competition.
All in all, 1986 was a mixed year. There was hunger in Africa, affluence in Western Europe. Stubborn warfare in the Persian Gulf, reconciliation in the Philippines. The world economy grew slowly, but with many more mouths to feed.
Some of the most mighty undertakings notably did not work. Others, modest like the Voyager flight, worked elegantly and well. Mistakes and successes alike lent themselves to another year of progress.