Asking the right shuttle questions

It's probably impossible to count all the questions that linger in the aftermath of space shuttle Columbia's sudden, shocking destruction. Some of them are obvious: What went wrong? Could the accident have been avoided? Is it time to rethink the entire shuttle system?

Other questions veer off into banality. One example that left me particularly incensed took place at a science fair in Florida. A network TV reporter questioned several young girls, and wondered aloud if they were still interested in becoming astronauts someday. When one of the girls said, "yes," the reporter quickly retorted, "Even after what happened [to Columbia]?"

I know the reporter was hunting for compelling sound bites, but the "gosh, aren't you scared?" approach is a journalistic dead end. If you seriously believe a child may have been frightened away from space travel because there can be fatal accidents, why not take the next logical step and ask her about other deadly possibilities that lurk in everyday life?

In 2001, there were more than 40,000 fatalities in car accidents in the US, and for decades, big-city annual murder rates have regularly totaled in the hundreds. But I think it's highly unlikely you'll ever see a reporter approaching kids at a car show to ask if they're too scared to get licenses when they're old enough to drive, or travel to metropolitan areas without a bodyguard or some other form of personal security.

Fear is a normal human emotion, but if we let it define our relationship to the natural phenomena around us we will eventually end up cowering in basements behind bolted doors, listening for things that go bump in the night. I understand why many people choose to live their lives within a narrow range of experience. It's a way of gaining some control over a world that often seems unpredictable and threatening, but it's not the kind of attitude that moves society forward.

What has kept American culture dynamic and progressive during the past two centuries is our collective spirit of adventure, exploration, and inquiry. Much has been said recently about the "special" qualities of our astronauts, and there is a reason they have gained this reputation.

My wife and I both come from families with close ties to the aerospace industry. The people we know in this field have, for the most part, pursued their endeavors without dogma or ideology. They don't have political or social agendas. They are, at heart, problem-solvers who are not motivated by dreams of wealth or glory, but simply an ongoing desire to understand the myriad systems that keep the universe functioning, and push back the boundaries of ignorance and superstition.

If the crew of the Columbia could speak to us, I think they'd insist we do everything possible to find out what caused the terrible end of their mission. They would want us to keep asking intelligent questions, face the future with courage, and never let fear of the unknown frighten us away from the search for answers.

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