Jolted from a shared wonder in spaceflight

Even after the ominous first announcements, it seemed so innocent and clean flashing through the morning sky on our television screens, a streamer of white heralding one more arrival from space.

Maybe we've seen so many fictional encounters in space that we can't quickly absorb or accept the terrible spectacle of death in the heavens when it is soundless and comes to us masked as a swift and graceful plume of smoke splitting the blue sky above Texas.

Space is still a fantasy world for most of us. Its heroes are not warriors or gladiators confronting an enemy in arenas of violence. Space is full of wonder and mystery. It unites our imaginations with our longing to reach for and to find something beyond us.

The instant and global attention that today's television brings to a flight to the moon or to an orbiting safe house in space creates audiences into the billions of people. Yet it remains a personal odyssey for many who watch. The canvas of that journey is huge, the universe itself. Because it is, the event sweeps us for a few moments or a few hours into an experience that dissolves the boundaries of everyday life. It lets us soar and revel in a kind of psychic weightlessness in which we can frolic with the astronauts. It is exhilarating and it seems harmless.

It is not harmless for the men and women who have become our escorts. But the technology of rocketry and spaceflight has advanced so far and its success rate is so remarkable that the illusions of the space journey have become part of the spectacle.

It will all end happily on a runway in Florida, we tell ourselves.

On Saturday morning, nearly 40 miles above the earth, the illusion broke once more, 17 years removed - almost to the day - from the awful fireball in the sky that ended the flight of the space shuttle Challenger.

The scientists, the engineers, and the astronauts are constantly aware, of course, of the hazards. And the viewing public is reminded of it at each step of the countdowns, despite the terse professionalism of those disembodied voices reciting the familiar litanies and dialogue between Mission Control and the shuttle commander.

Why, then, is the pain and devastation we feel so complete and stunning, so uniquely personal, when the spaceship falls in pieces before our eyes? We see grief and tragedy on our screens almost every day. We respond to it with anger or compassion or futility. On Sept. 11, 2001, the death and destruction from an attack on the United States stirred Americans from sorrow to retaliation and now toward war.

Tragedy in space is not like that. Although space exploration began as a harsh and expensive duel between the cold-war powers of 50 years ago, there is no special villainy in the stars today. It is a place for the exploring spirit to romp and, incidentally, to do some required research because it gets to be expensive floating around up there. It's the home of quirky contraptions like the space station and lunar modules, and we feel like kids again, watching the action. Schemes for the militarization of space are still on the table, but most of us still look on spaceflight as almost pure adventure.

The star wars are make-believe. The actual heroes of space are people who might comfortably be our neighbors, although they know all about the risk, and some of them are spurred by that risk. They are competent, brave, and not gripped by illusions.

Slowly the face of the space crews has changed, so that when we looked once more Saturday morning at the stills of the team that rode spaceship Columbia, we were looking approvingly at a kind of family of man. Among the seven were men and women, people of color, and a military veteran from Israel.

They seemed altogether normal and unaffected, no matter how professional. And perhaps that explains why, when the ghastliness of what we were watching came clear, our loss was so personal, why our mourning for their families went so deep.

What binds them most intimately to us? It is what seems to be that uninhibited sense of awe and delight that ignites both the trained astronaut and the obscure trail hiker, when the path breaks clear of all the impediments and the sky is wide open and full of invitation and the view seems to stretch forever.

George (Pinky) Nelson, a Minnesotan, rode the shuttle on three space missions and was one of the first astronauts to walk in space untethered to the mother ship. He is an astronomer and an educator and a trained airman. But he returned from one of the missions with the exuberance of an adolescent seeing the world for the first time. And so he had, the planet Earth in all its distant marvels, from thousands of miles in the sky.

Earth's precise features did not immediately reveal themselves. But there, stretching from the buff sands of the Middle East to the jungles of the south of Africa, was the great gash 4,000 miles in length that we call the African Rift.

It was a sight, he said. From lower, the astronauts could make out the brush fires the villagers had started to speed up nature's fertility. They were somewhat startled. It was our world, from space.

The distant skies are not the natural habitat of human beings. But finding out what is around the bend in the road, or beyond the hill, defines part of our humanity, and sometimes it is our dreams that unite the stroller with the explorer.

And so they did Saturday morning.

Jim Klobuchar was one of 35 finalists for NASA's journalist-in-space project when it was canceled in 1986 because of the Challenger accident.

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