Is the 'right stuff' wrong?

Was "American arrogance" to blame for the Columbia space shuttle tragedy? Reading the coverage in the British press, you could be forgiven for thinking so. Amid the expressions of sorrow at the loss of seven brave lives, and calls for the space program to continue, some British commentators have put "American ambition" and "starchasing" in the frame - calling on the US to "ground its dreams" until the safety of its astronauts can be guaranteed.

For The Independent, the Columbia disaster was more than a fatal accident - it was a cautionary tale for cocky America. The accident should "give pause for thought about the costs and benefits of space exploration," the paper said in an editorial. It ought to "mark a further stage in coming to terms with the limits of human endeavour."

Further, The Independent celebrated this as a reality checkon American power. "If [the scaling back and fading romance with space] contribute to a subtle adjustment to the American psyche, it is likely to be for the better. There can be no harm, in the present world situation, in the US coming to terms with the idea of limits to its power." In short, there could even be something positive in the Columbia tragedy, if it brings the US down a peg or two.

In the same paper, columnist Andreas Whittam Smith pointed to President Bush's quote from Isaiah in his address to the nation as a note of superiority: "This religiosity ... suggests that in a way Americans consider themselves a chosen people." Mr. Whittam Smith called this a "delusion," in which "Americans evidently believe themselves instructed to pacify [the world]."

A correspondent for The Observer, with a nod to the events of Sept. 11, spelled out the lesson of the Columbia disaster for the American people: "The empire is not invincible.... America builds the tallest buildings in the world but they get knocked down. America conquers the heavens, but the spacecraft fragments into fiery shards, incinerating a crew travelling at six times the speed of sound."

Others have made links between the Columbia tragedy and a more contemporary conflict - Iraq. Many in Europe remain skeptical of the US stance on Iraq and have used the shuttle disaster to remind us of their opposition. In the London Evening Standard, A.N. Wilson said: "There is a tendency in America to believe that it is possible to do very dangerous things, such as fly into space, or fight wars, without any Americans being killed. The tragedy of the space shuttle reminds them that this is not necessarily so."

In The Mirror, academic Terence Kealey described manned space flights as "little more than ego boosts for American politicians." According to Mr. Kealey, the exploration of space hasn't even achieved very much in "real terms.... I cannot applaud a programme that is so divorced from humanity's real needs, that emerged out of vile hot and cold wars, and that abuses science for hyperpower posturing.... The US taxpayer spends $14.5 billion a year on NASA. And for what visible achievement? For nothing."

For nothing? How insulting to the seven astronauts who died in the Columbia explosion, who all knew that space travel has its dangers but were willing to take part in the name of science. Kealey, like others, says that space program money should be spent on "real" things, like feeding the poor, cutting taxes, or "preserving the disappearing gorillas and chimpanzees of Africa." The notion, that there is a clash between the "nothing" of space travel and the economic "reality" of helping others, suggests a broader hostility to exploration and knowledge for their own sake.

It is these kinds of sentiments that seem to be driving the criticisms of the US in the wake of Columbia. Behind the harsh words about American arrogance, ego, and self-centeredness, some are expressing a broader concern with risky endeavor - where anything too ambitious or unpredictable is viewed as problematic. The Independent'seditorialmay poke holes in the "American psyche" and "American power," but its headline - "A space tragedy that reminds us of the limits to human endeavour" - gives away its broader concerns.

In attacking "American ambition," these writers seem to be attacking ambition itself. Ours is a cautious age, where we are meant to apply the "precautionary principle" in science to avoid unpredictable outcomes, and where "risk aversion" is the buzz phrase of the day. The ambition "to boldly go" and conquer "infinity and beyond" sits uncomfortably at a time when we are encouraged to be "better safe than sorry." Often, attacks on America, for better or worse the pinnacle of modern society, sound more like attacks on modern society itself - a projection of individual prejudices onto America and all that it represents.

In truth, Americans, or anybody else, cannot explore space without an element of risk and ambition. As columnist Mick Hume writes in The Times (London): "All attempts at discovery involve risk. It is in the nature of experiments and breaking new ground that nobody knows exactly what will happen." The Columbia astronauts were clearly among those who still see such risks as worth taking.

Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of

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