We have felt this before. Watching the fiery remains of space shuttle Columbia streak across the blue Texas sky Saturday was like being forced to relive the past. Didn’t we experience the same disbelief, sadness and horror when a flash fire killed three Apollo astronauts during a launch pad test in 1967? And again in 1986, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded just after liftoff, killing all seven on board? It only magnified the sense of deja vu this weekend to learn that Columbia’s demise on Feb. 1 was linked with almost sinister precision to the dates of those earlier disasters. The Apollo fire occurred 36 years ago on Jan. 27. Nineteen years later, Challenger blew up on Jan. 28. Just last Tuesday, Columbia’s crew members joined NASA mission control in a moment of silence at the exact hour of the Challenger tragedy. Four days later, they, too, were gone.
We extend our deepest condolences to the families of those seven courageous astronauts, five of them eager rookies, one of them — Col. Ilan Ramon — the first Israeli in space and the pride of his country during this mission. We also convey our heartfelt sympathy to the astronauts’ NASA family — and family is the right word, as anyone could tell who saw the stricken faces and heard the halting words of Mr. Milt Heflin, chief flight director of the Columbia mission, and Mr. Ron Dittemore, shuttle program manager, at NASA’s initial news conference in Houston.
Finally, those feelings of commiseration flow to all Americans, a nation still so shaken in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, the anthrax attacks and last fall’s sniper crisis that the first thing U.S. government spokesmen felt compelled to do Saturday was to send out signals that terrorism was not suspected in the Columbia accident.
Unfortunately, there are people in the world who do not regard it as an accident and certainly do not extend their sympathy, either to the bereaved or to the United States as a whole. One would like to believe that nationality falls away at times like this. But watching the reaction in Baghdad this weekend, we were forcibly reminded that it does not. Many Iraqis, apparently, noted coincidences quite separate from the eerie coincidence of dates. The fact that the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, President George W. Bush’s home state, and the fact that an Israeli citizen was on board were interpreted as signs of God’s retribution on Iraq’s, or even the Arab world’s, behalf.
It was all the more heartening, then, to see one important part of the Arab world firmly dissociate itself from this kind of thinking. According to reports Sunday, there were no such signs of jubilation in any of the Palestinian territories over Columbia’s loss. On the contrary, President Yasser Arafat offered his condolences both to the six American families and to the Israeli family who lost loved ones in the catastrophe.
That, of course, is the only decent response. But it is also the only sensible response. What happened in the sky over Texas has nothing to do with Mr. Bush or his looming confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The U.S. space program, which is the chief engine of the still nascent international space program, began long before the present administration arrived on the scene and will continue long after it has gone. With the end of the Cold War, the “space race” gave way to the world space community, and in the past decade the International Space Station, for all its troubles, has come to symbolize the kind of global comity that has proved so hard to sustain or even find on Earth. The four American space shuttle orbiters — Columbia, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour — were key to the ISS mission, ferrying component parts, supplies and crew back and forth, not for the greater glory of the U.S. but all of us.
With the loss of Columbia, that enterprise is put on hold indefinitely. The Challenger explosion grounded the shuttle program for nearly three years. NASA could take equally long to learn why Columbia disintegrated just 16 minutes before it was due to land on Saturday. It is essential that they do. As shuttle flights become more routine — this was, after all, the 113th flight — the public forgets how extraordinarily dangerous and difficult they are. Challenger reminded the world of it, for a while. Columbia has now brought it home to us again.
But one thing is certain. Someday, the remaining orbiters will fly again and construction of the ISS will proceed. Mr. Bush said it this weekend, listing the names of the dead: “The cause in which they died will continue; our journey into space will go on.” NASA’s Mr. Heflin said it, too, more colloquially but no less sincerely: “We’ve had a bad day. But when we have a bad day, we fix it.”
Those seven brave astronauts are owed nothing less.
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