“The Columbia is lost. There are no survivors.” Blunt words spoken softly by President Bush this afternoon. He spoke of how easy it is for all of us to “overlook the dangers of travel by rocket. . . . These astronauts knew the dangers, and they faced them willingly.” He spoke of why “mankind is led into the darkness,” and he promised that “our journey into space will go on.”
“Lift your eyes and look to the heavens,” he said, quoting Isaiah. “The same Creator who names the stars knows the names of the seven souls we mourn today.”
His remarks were explicitly God-based, and that seemed just right. At moments like this presidents fall back on their primary thought-stream. Mr. Bush went straight to the spiritual.
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Oh my, it is painful. The parents of astronaut David Brown were just on television, live, early in the afternoon of the day their son died. Mr. Brown said his son had told him he dreamed of going to Mars. He added that all Dave’s flight friends wanted a Mars journey. David Brown’s parents spoke with a helpful air, with pained poise, of their son who had died in the morning. Thrown back by life and trying to be helpful. You wonder where astronaut David Brown got his guts? Meet Mr. and Mrs. Brown of Arlington, Va.
* * *
It sends you back, doesn’t it? You see the broken line of vapor against the blue sky and hear the voices anchormen get when they have to ad lib disaster, and it takes you back to that winter day 17 years ago when America was horrified to see a spacecraft blow up before its eyes.
But this one is different, in so many ways.
We weren’t watching it take off, live, we were watching it come back in, only we weren’t watching because we’ve grown so used to marvels. I think of a hundred-year-old lady who told a friend of mine of the day that when she was young, she saw an airplane for the first time. She had been dining with friends at an outdoor club and a plane—this amazing machine—came and landed on the rolling lawns beyond. They ran out from the lunch table in great excitement, touched the plane, felt amazement. “What did you do then?” my friend asked. “We went inside and finished lunch,” she replied. That’s what people do with marvels, they see, absorb and return to life. That’s what we were doing while the space program was going on the past few years: We were eating lunch.
The Challenger broke up over the ocean, this one over land. The air this time on the TV screen was pale, not the painful rich blue that framed the vivid cloud of what had been the Challenger.
Back then it was a shock. This time it is too, though one we’ve experienced before.
* * *
“These are the days of miracle and wonder,” sang Paul Simon in the 1980s. It ran through my head all morning, from out of nowhere, and I think I know why. It has to do with the impossibility, the sheer implausibility, of the facts. We are on the verge of war in the Mideast, a war springing in its modern origins from the tensions of the Arab-Israeli conflict; our president, a Texan, believes we must move on Iraq. The space shuttle that broke up today carried, for the first time ever, a Mideastern astronaut, an Israeli who won fame when he led a daring raid on a nuclear reactor in Iraq, 20 years ago. The shuttle broke up over the president’s home state, Texas. The center of the debris field appears to be a little town called Palestine.
If Tom Clancy wrote this in one of his novels—heck, if Tim LaHaye wrote this in one of his Left Behind books—his editor would call him and say, “We’re thinking this may be too over the top.”
* * *
The morning the Challenger blew up, President Reagan was meeting with a handful of network anchors, giving them a preview of his State of the Union address, which was to be given that night. The president got the news of the explosion and spoke of the tragedy with the anchors, who asked him questions. Their conversation was witnessed by a staffer in the National Security Council, who took notes. She ran them into the speechwriting office. The notes became the basis of the Challenger speech, which the president gave later that day.
He ended with famous words from a famous World War II-era poem written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American citizen who gave his life with the Royal Canadian Air Force at the beginning of the war, before America was in.
I felt in my heart that Mr. Reagan knew that poem, and that if he did he would want to use it. He did know it. He told me afterward that it was written on a plaque at his daughter Patti’s school when she was a kid. He used to go and read it. I was later told that Mr. Reagan had in fact read the poem at the funeral or at a memorial for his friend Tyrone Power, who had been a World War II pilot.
This is the poem. It’s called “High Flight”:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence, hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along,
And flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
The morning the Challenger blew up, the grade-school daughter of Ronald Reagan’s chief speechwriter, Ben Elliott, was spending the day with her father in the White House. She came into my office, this little blond child, and said softly that the teacher was on the Challenger. Is the teacher OK? I realized: schoolchildren across the country were watching the Challenger go up, they were watching on TV sets and in auditoriums, because Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, was on the flight. The children saw it all. It was supposed to be part of American schoolchildren learning about space, that’s why the schools were showing it live. It was a learning tool.
Well it was, and the children learned more than anyone would have expected. They got a lesson in bravery, on why men go forth into space, on what it means to push forward, and what courage it takes. What it is to be an American pioneer.
Today the tragedy feels less like something that teaches than something that reminds. We were reminded of what we know. President Bush referred to it when he lauded the astronauts’ courage. We forget to notice the everyday courage of astronauts. We forget to think about all the Americans doing big and dangerous things in the world—members of the armed forces, cops and firemen, doctors in public hospitals in hard places. And now, famously again, astronauts. With their unremarked-upon valor and cool professionalism. With their desire to make progress and push on.
Buzz Aldrin captured it this morning. He tried to read a poem about astronauts on television. He read these words: “As they passed from us to glory, riding fire in the sky.” And tough old Buzz, steely-eyed rocket man and veteran of the moon, began to weep.
He was not alone.
God bless and bless and bless their souls, and rest their souls in the morning.