What humbles a nation most

A disaster in space can upset the rhythm of national life as nothing else can.

On Jan. 28, 1986, President Reagan was working on his State of the Union address when several staff members rushed in to tell him that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded on takeoff. Mr. Reagan scrapped his speech to Congress and delivered instead a message of "mourning and remembering," as he put it. He assured America, which needed a lot of assuring, that "Man will continue his conquests of space."

On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, President Bush was at Camp David, planning the next moves in the Iraq game when the shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas. Once again, the powerful head of a powerful nation found himself at the mercy of the fates that govern travel in space. There has always been something awesome about space, that so-called last frontier, that could defeat best-laid plans, impose new agendas, and make the superpower feel suddenly super-powerless. Space was always something especially exciting, especially scary.

Scariest of all was the 23-year-old reusable-shuttle program. Challenger and Columbia together have cost 14 lives. All the rest of the space program had cost only three lives - the three astronauts lost in a fire aboard the Apollo 204 in 1967 on a preflight test for what was to have been the first manned mission.

I was present at what you might call the inception of the space race, then a part of the cold war. As a Moscow correspondent in 1957, I reported on the launching of the first two Soviet Sputniks and Nikita Khrushchev's blustering triumphalism about having beaten America to the orbital draw. Four years later, President Kennedy trumped him with a promise that before the end of the decade, the US would send a man to the moon, returning him safely to Earth. Returning him safely was the hard part. It happened in July 1969, and the world was asked to hail one giant leap for mankind.

Then the shuttle, in time, made space travel seem almost routine, raising the idea of selling tickets to tourists. And then the crash of the Columbia canceled this and a lot of other plans and sent a shudder through the nation.

A disaster in space evokes a special kind of grief, a sense of having tempted the fates too far, a wonderment about whether it was meant for us to be straying so far from our planet. But as in 1986, that national sense of vulnerability will pass and a superpower will go back to playing superpower.

Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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