In contrast to the 1986 Challenger shuttle tragedy, many Americans have responded to the loss of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew with more resilience, showing a greater sense of community and a more sober assessment of its longer-term meaning.
Perhaps the nation was better prepared to reunite in civic spirit because of its experience after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The most visible example of a nation coming together is the shoulder-to-shoulder search by volunteers and government officials for thousands of pieces of wreckage over hundreds of miles. Even a golden retriever was found carrying a piece of the shuttle near Shreveport, La.
NASA, especially, learned after the 1986 tragedy to be more responsive to the national community that supports it. The modus operandi in 1986 was secrecy. Now the agency is more open and speedier in communicating with the public, and more willing to accept outside review.
Such openness will allow the country to participate in the still-unfolding story, and support solutions for the troubled space program. If, for instance, an investigation reveals NASA erred in being overconfident in its safety judgments about the shuttle, the country will feel better about devoting resources for a correction.
Even as the nation honors those lost, the transition from shock and grief to recovery and moving on is remarkable. This week's joint declaration by the families of the lost astronauts calling for renewed space exploration will help sustain the nation as it probes, and then fixes the shuttle program.