While you will find little else on the news channels today other than the Columbia disaster, there’s an odd feeling to the whole thing. Not that it isn’t tragic – it certainly is – but that it doesn’t seem as unexpected as the Challenger Disaster was.
The Challenger Disaster was such a shock to many of my generation because we had become so accustomed to the seeming reliability and safety of space travel. So many other shuttle launches had happened that they seemed commonplace and no longer newsworthy. Indeed, the most noteworthy aspect of the Challenger launch at the start of the news day had seemed to be the presence of the “first teacher in space.” Space travel had reached that point that we were no longer talking about the first man, first woman, first African-American, or the long list of other firsts that had happened. At least for the first woman and the first African-American, cultural barriers had to be crossed before the space barrier could be crossed. While a first teacher in space is culturally significant, it did send the message that space travel was now common enough that even someone as familiar as a school teacher could go there. Many felt that it was more a public-relations gesture, to renew public interest in space flight because it had become so commonplace as to no longer warrant attention without devising yet another human-interest first.
After the Challenger Disaster, however, we all had been shocked enough at seeing it explode that, even with safety improvements, you couldn’t watch another shuttle launch or any shuttle news without thinking that something could go wrong again someday. In that light, the breakup of Columbia on re-entry seems less surprising and more expected — overdue, in fact. Indeed, given that the Challenger accident happened on lift-off, the break-up of Columbia on re-entry seems to complete part of some strange equation. It seems like an extended Murphy’s Law: Not only will something go wrong if it can go wrong, but the universe must generate tangible examples of each possible thing that can go wrong.
Sadly, the Columbia Disaster also does not seem to fit our post-9/11 expanded definitions of disaster and tragedy. We have seen thousands of humans die who did not know that they were taking any risk by boarding a plane or going to work. In that light, the deaths of seven people who knew that space flight was risky but were brave enough to pursue it seems existentially more understandable. Sad, but not a large-scale disaster.
That said, I am dedicating this week’s writing to the seven men and women who died aboard Columbia.