Washington, We Have a Problem

It is easy to overlook the dangers of travel by rocket . . .

—George W. Bush

"One thing," he said later, "it's quick in space. Death. It's over like that."

—Ray Bradbury, "The Rocket Man"

"I'M JUST GLAD THE SHUTTLE DIDN'T BLOW UP on my real birthday like last time," said the woman, who, last Saturday, was being celebrated a few days after her actual date. The scene was Pete's Tavern in the renovated San Fernando Building downtown, where young partiers seemed to be taking that morning's disaster in stride. There was speculation about which urban legends might already be coursing through the Internet grapevine — fueled, certainly, by the presence of an Israeli astronaut on a flight whose debris fell over Palestine, Texas. One man, citing The Omen, tried to link Columbia's fall to the movie's Revelations-flavored Antichrist prophecy: "'When the Jews return to Zion and a comet rips the sky . . .,'" he quoted. "The comet would be the space shuttle. We know who the beast is." This last reference came with an implied nod toward the White House.

Sixteen hours before, Californians had once more awoken to daylong TV coverage of an airborne disaster: Sixteen months back it had been the destruction of the World Trade Center, and three years ago, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s private-plane crash; now it was America's second space-shuttle calamity.

Immediately after 9/11 there had been much soul-searching about the wall-to-wall rebroadcasting of the airliner attack on the Twin Towers, and for quite a while that footage vanished from the nation's TV screens. Such squeamishness has apparently worn off, given the fixed presence of the Columbia fireball on all channels. It's not hard to see why — the shuttle's meteoric flameout was a dreamy tableau of shining debris lazily scratching a clear blue sky. It wasn't just footage, it was a screen saver.

The tragedy also revealed our morbid obsession with patriotic disasters, for once again it was time for that part of Middle America that dotes on tragedy to break out the ribbons and lower the flags.

THE APOCALYPTIC OMEN MUSINGS OF THE young man at the birthday party weren't so over the top given the God-is-my-co-pilot nattering of George W. Bush, who, once again, played national grief counselor by cracking open his Bible. The president's first brief statement on the explosion was full of talk about God the Creator and prayer — just the kind of sermonizing he injects into nearly every aspect of government policy, drawing, here, not upon The Omen's Revelations, but upon Isaiah. If there are evildoers on one side of the world, after all, then there must also be fallen angels on the other — ours.

Bewildered by America's plunge into memorial Masses, congressional prayer meetings and church-pew interviews, the London Independent's Andreas Whittam Smith wrote, "This religiosity, as we would describe it, suggests that in a way Americans consider themselves a chosen people . . . This explains their astonishment that the rest of the world should fail to share their view of Iraq."

In an age when policy debates have moved from understanding the intentions of the Constitution's framers to wondering what Jesus would do, Bush's speech may not have seemed unduly ecclesiastical, but there was a time when excessive religious piety was kept out of presidential speechwriting. Then again, in those long-ago days, America's use of nuclear weapons was not publicly considered a God-given right.

The Columbia explosion could be seen as one really big plane crash. But, of course, it was more than that. The shuttle was a symbol of American might, technology and diplomacy. Yet historical comparisons are inevitable. When Apollo I's three-man crew were incinerated during an on-ground accident in 1967, expensive design changes were ordered to upgrade the capsule's safety. Will similar improvements be made this time, or will the shuttle program be scuttled or reduced to a military spy program? Also, it's worth remembering that Ronald Reagan ordered an Air Force strike against Libya shortly after the 1986 Challenger shuttle explosion — in response to a terrorist attack unconnected to that country. We could hope that the Columbia tragedy isn't used as some psychic camouflage for a new war, but don't count on it.

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