Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2003/ 1 Adar I, 5763
Four decades ago, the space program was the only romantic thing about an unromantic war - the competition between two high-tech superpowers to put a man on space, and then on the Moon. Now there is no one to compete with, and for America's new enemies in a new war "victory" means no more than American failure.
You can't take down a spaceship at 200,000 feet with a shoulder-launched missile. Even the Americans would have difficulty blowing the Shuttle out of the sky, though the missile defense system currently under development will be able to do it. Al-Qa'eda can't, and nor can the French or anyone else.
These days, American technology has to pace itself. But you don't have to believe, as NASA fretted in the weeks before launch, that this Shuttle could be a terrorist target to marvel at the almost perfect symbolism of Saturday's tragedy: the Columbia's crew included the first Israeli astronaut, Colonel Ilan Ramon; better yet, he was an Israeli who had participated in the successful raid on the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, back in the 1980s in those dark days before the policing of Saddam's nuclear program was entrusted to Hans Blix; and, of course, the Shuttle came down over Texas, home state of the President and in the European press the favored shorthand for what they see as the swaggering cowboy braggadocio of the US.
Indeed, you don't even have to be some Islamist death-cult loser in Ramallah to be dancing up and down in the street. Within an hour of the Shuttle's loss, a Canadian Broadcasting Corportation interviewer was gleefully asking her alleged expert whether the failure was due to American "arrogance", the same "arrogance" the Americans are currently demonstrating in the Middle East. The "expert" - a sci-fi writer - said no, it wasn't "arrogance". But an hour later the CBC was apparently citing mysterious "space experts" who thought "over-confidence" arising from Iraqi war fever had led NASA to go ahead with the flight.
What happened yesterday is a personal tragedy and a symbolic disaster - in 42 years of manned flight, NASA has never lost a crew during landing or the return in orbit. It is also a setback for Washington, which had plotted this week as a projection of American resolve: the State of the Union, Bush's meetings with Silvio Berlusconi and Tony Blair, all working up to Colin Powell's presentation to the United Nations Security Council. Now, instead of steely determination, the television screens will be filled with funerals, elegies, interviews with neighbors, mounds of flowers and teddy bears: it enables the networks to slip in to their preferred mode, of America as victim, weak and vulnerable, which is why ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN were so good on September 11 and, for the most part, so bad in the months since.
You can't blame the news shows for their priorities: for most Americans, this will be the only attention they have paid to the space program since the last disaster - the disintegration of the Challenger on take-off in 1986. Nothing in between has captured the public imagination - pictures from Mars? Yawn. There's something very American about the presumption of success, about the way something unprecedented quickly becomes routine - unless it all goes wrong.
In 1986, President Reagan, eulogizing the dead astronauts, said that they had "slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of G-d". President Bush, whom commentators have increasingly compared to Reagan in recent months, is not so comfortable with grandiose poetic rhetoric; he is a more openly emotional man, and it will be the smaller human elements in the story that touch him - men and women in their early 40s, leaving behind young children. They were an American crew - four men, one black; two women, one born in India.
Nonetheless, this will not be as traumatizingly mesmeric as the Challenger disaster. The yellow-ribbon era died with September 11: even if their television networks haven't quite adjusted, Americans are tougher about these things; this is a country at war and one that understands how to absorb losses and setbacks.
What happened happened most likely because the Columbia was just so darn old and rusty. If anything, it symbolizes not American "arrogance", but what happens when the great youthful innovative spirit of the country is allowed to atrophy: the entire space program is now dependent on a transit system a generation old. If Mr Bush really wanted to emphasize the gulf between his country and both the Islamist cave dwellers and "Old Europe", he would announce a major renewal of the space project. A frontier is part of the US character.
Two weeks ago, when the Shuttle was launched, the enterprising internet commentator Charles Johnson posted an almost note-perfect parody of an Arab news report denouncing the presence of Colonel Ramon:
A couple of days later, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reprinted the Internet story, apparently taking it for real. In an odd way, the world's reactions are beyond parody now. No doubt in the big-time mosques the A-list imams really will regard what happened as the judgment of Allah on the American-Zionist plan to seize the heavens. The rest of us will mourn the dead and urge NASA to get on with the next flight. That's the American way.
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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is Senior Contributing Editor of The National Post and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.
01/29/03: Go forth and multiply