Pioneers, scientists, heroes


Mourning: Although the past 40 years have brought many changes to the nation and to NASA, Americans still react with genuine and powerful emotions to the loss of a crew of astronauts.

February 06, 2003|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

As memorial services for Columbia's seven astronauts continue today in Washington, a kind of secular liturgy plays out. Stylized rhetoric of resolution and recommitment will accompany ceremonial images of public grief. The familiar code of "national mourning" will give shape and meaning to a tragedy that, by now, is simply accepted as a sacrifice.

The outpouring of emotion is both genuine and customary; a storm of media coverage, which began with Saturday's news, unfolds like a familiar script.

What does it mean? Why does the accidental death of astronauts - more than soldiers, police officers or perhaps any national figure other than a president - evoke such a powerful, predictable response?

These were not just men and women, we are told. They were not commonplace heroes. Since the Cold War, astronauts have served as symbolic figures largely engaged in missionary work in a realm defined by the language of a secular faith.

Manned space, as it is known, has always been wrapped in ideals. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress for $9 billion to take an astronaut to the moon, fully acknowledging that "no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be."

Although others tried to define the uses of space - whether flights would be manned or strictly mechanical, whether projects would be for military or civilian uses - in the environment of a Cold War those decisions were easy. Political events defined the challenge. America would conquer space for freedom. Astronauts would lead the charge. It was not a matter of decision, but of destiny.

And so for more than 40 years, the manned space program has been the challenge of faith in search of meaning. Shaped by political events, political rhetoric and a smooth public relations machine at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the mission of astronauts has succeeded by an extraordinary melding of beliefs in technological progress, frontier myths and American values.

In 1985, after the Challenger disaster, President Reagan reaffirmed commitment to this mission: "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted," he said. "It belongs to the brave. Nothing ends here. Our hopes and journeys continue."

In words that echoed that same commitment, President Bush said Saturday in his address to the nation: "These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity. ... The cause in which they died will continue. ... Our journey into space will go on."

Interestingly, in recent times, the "mission" and "journey" of space shuttle astronauts has gone on largely without much comment until a tragedy occurs. The great cause to which presidents refer gets minor mention in the news. Shuttle missions - carefully orchestrated to include men and women, people of color, representatives of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds - take place five or six times a year with some fanfare but little public regard.

What do they do? Unexceptional science experiments that are sometimes little more than symbolic exercises. The Columbia's mission, for instance, included an experiment to study tomato seeds from a preschool class at a Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

This is hardly news. During times less tainted by tragedy, critics have referred to the missions as a "circus ... flag-pole sitting." Supported by a vast infrastructure of national space flight centers, the manned space program has an estimated cost of $500 million per flight, a sum that could be considerably lessened, critics say, if the money was spent to develop a more productive reusable launch vehicle.

Alex Roland, a Duke University specialist in American space policy, has often decried this paradoxical state of affairs. The shuttle's "ruinous tax on our civilian space program," he says, ties "us to an expensive, limited, fragile and risky transportation system," while the "public myth" promoted by politicians and NASA officials ties astronauts to flights in an outdated spacecraft.

The truth is, the most cost efficient and productive explorers in space have always been unmanned vehicles. Uninhabited satellites and probes brought the world global and mobile communications, sophisticated meteorological sciences, military reconnaissance, mapping of oceans and astonishing astronomy. But the story Americans tell the world about their space program is different. Americans talk about astronauts.

The symbolic value is so prized that, despite their inefficiency and costs, manned programs historically have consumed two-thirds of NASA's funding; automated spacecraft have taken only a third. Astronauts are so central to our national identity that within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many were secured in hidden locations, protected from harm.

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