Today the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas while making its way to a landing in Florida, after a couple of weeks in space. Already there’s been an address from the President and half the mailing lists I’m on have sent out special “tragedy updates”, including even the Project Gutenberg mailing list. I asked Michael Hart, director of Project Gutenberg, why he used that mailing list to send out a message about the Columbia and he simply said “I sent to everyone I knew. . .”
But I don’t understand what we find so compelling as a nation about tragedies of this nature. When the Challenger exploded, killing all aboard, we as a nation went through an extended period of national hand-wringing and talking-head pontification on the unacceptable risks of the space program. I’m sure we’re going to experience this again, but …
Space travel is inherently dangerous. The astronauts on the Columbia were well aware of the danger, were trained professionals, and while it’s tragic that they died, well, it’s only seven people engaged in a dangerous profession.
By contrast, a few days ago a helicopter crashed in Afghanistan killing all four aboard. No-one cared, other the the immediate families. Like being an astronaut, being a soldier is inherently risky and dangerous, especially during times of great tension as they are in the Afghan region.
So the question I pose is: are we a nation of wimps? A bunch of whiners that cringe and cower at the slightest danger? Or what is it about these high profile accidents that engage the public interest so?
I take to heart the wisdom of my good friend from Israel, who after 9-11 said “the world is a dangerous place. I am not afraid; I live my life and believe strongly that is the best and most courageous response to terrorism, either here or in Israel.” My parents lived through the Battle of Britain and spent much of World War II in greater London during the worst of the Nazi bombing raids. Their response to 9-11 mirrored many others who lived through WWII: “this is shocking, but it’s not such a big deal. There is no true peace and you have to live your life…”
But by contrast, there were – and remain – people who are convinced that these are all signs of the coming Apocalypse and that the best move is to stock up on food and ammo and hide out in the mountains of rural Montana with your personal generator. And certainly, I expect the next week to be absolutely full of the horrible tragedy of the Columbia and its brave crew.
Sorry to sound like a curmudgeon, but given the content of the State of the Union address last week, the miserable economy, and the ever-closer threat of war with Iraq, aren’t there more important things for us to be thinking about and discussing on the national scene?