Space Shuttle Columbia: Are We Really United in Mourning?

At the risk of sounding heartless, I confess that I am not in a state of terrible mourning over the loss of the space shuttle Columbia, nor do I find myself paralyzed with grief for the seven brave and talented souls who perished in its final fiery disintegration over Texas. I haven’t shed any tears or lost any sleep, and though the experience of seeing the footage on television was harrowing, it has not brought me any closer to my fellow Americans, any more than passing a nasty car wreck on the highway would.

I do not agree with New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s statement that watching the events of Saturday morning unfold was akin to "watching the loss of our better selves," nor do I consider his characterization of astronauts in general as "the last unspoiled American heroes… They have come to embody whatever remains of the American ideal," to be of any value whatsoever. When later in the column he claims that astronauts "save us" from having to "look in the mirror and see something low and mean," I begin wondering if I’m reading satire.

All of it is effectively bunk, of course, as earlier in the column Mr. Herbert admits that these days no one pays attention to astronauts until they’re claimed by tragedy. So then, would it be safer to say that dead astronauts, instead of living ones, are the "embodiment of the American ideal"? Does one have to be dead in order to be a hero, or is the bestowal of hero status simply a way to lessen the guilt over past neglect? Are astronauts the new firefighters?

If Mr. Herbert’s reaction was runny, the Boston Globe’s reaction was nearer to hysterical. Sunday’s paper included an entire section dedicated to the crash entitled, "The Columbia Shuttle Disaster," and if a few of the eighteen stories verged on the bathetic, they were eclipsed mightily by the headline, "Voices of Sorrow: Once again under a cloudless sky, occasion for a nation to join in grief."

The very idea that the Columbia is in any way analogous to September 11 is absurd, lending credence to the suspicion that as a nation America has lost the ability to suffer tragedy with anything resembling perspective, saneness or dignity, becoming consumed instead by garish public outpourings of institutionalized grief that quite often border on the pornographic.

Certainly the terms Mr. Herbert, The Globe and likeminded others deploy in order to pay sufficient tribute to the fallen astronauts sound a great deal like those used to honor the firefighters murdered on September 11: this notion of modest, big-hearted and courageous men and women toiling in obscurity, not for personal gain, not even for the sole benefit of America, but for the good of humanity at large.

Beyond the obvious problems with this way of thinking, and the hazards of idealizing people to the extent where they become more you than them, there is a fundamental ignorance behind this portrayal of astronauts as selfless and sacrificial Everymen (as though that were the only way to endear them to the masses). For starters, just because we didn’t know who they were doesn’t mean they were unsung, nor does it mean they went uncompensated for their efforts. These weren’t garbage men we’re talking about here, these people got to visit space, which is a hell of a lot more than the rest of us will ever do.

So how about we try a more moderate national reaction? This, perhaps: These seven were extraordinary people, intelligent, driven and spurred on by a noble thirst for knowledge and adventure; they had the opportunity to go to space, understood the significant risks involved, spun the wheel and never came back. It was sad but not senseless. Their families and friends will miss them, shuttle technology may be improved because of them, and the rest of us will get on with our lives, resisting the urge to overcompensate with the morbid fanfare, unconcerned with being seen by the low and the mean as insufficiently sad.

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