Pulling in the satellite gave nation's soul a tug


That communications satellite wasn't the only thing that got grabbed the other day. A lot of us did, too.

I was channel surfing, flipping through the TV dial with the channel changer, pausing to watch Sam Horn hit a home run for the Orioles, and then moving on, letting the pictures and the blaring bursts of sound slide by.

Then I stopped. It was not only the incredible sight that held me, but also the silence, the silence interrupted only occasionally by brief bursts of speech.

"I'm holding onto your waist." "Can you move it to your right?" "Uh, we are preparing for grapple, Houston." And from the ground: "OK, we see a good grapple, Endeavour. Congratulations."

And there were the pictures. In a time when our most memorable pictures have been of smart bombs blowing up bunkers, Anita Hill appearing before Congress, the blue-blob of the alleged rape victim testifying in Palm Beach, Rodney King being beaten, Reginald Denny being pulled from his truck, and Los Angeles burning, how wonderful it was to see the Endeavour mission unfold in front of the blue pearl that was the Earth.

It grabbed me as surely as the astronauts grabbed that satellite: The black of space, the gold and black of the satellite, the white-suited astronauts and the blue disk streaked with white clouds that is our planet.

I know this does not seem like the time to say it; I know it is hackneyed and chauvinistic, but watching those pictures made me proud to be an American.

True, it was only a feat of courage and brains and technology. But still, it was not too shabby. To actually go out into space and grab onto a 4 1/2 -ton spinning satellite that was the size of a van, that was not a bad day's work.

A $7 million grabber bar had failed to capture the satellite, and now three guys where just going to use their six gloved hands. And when they were attempting it, it made you want to shout: "Grab that sucker! Muscle that mother! Yeah!"

It seemed such an American way to solve a problem. (European astronauts probably would have used their feet, like they do on their soccer balls.)

We have not cared about these missions for a while now. The major networks no longer provide live coverage of the shuttle launches and landings. Most people don't care. It's just more flying around. Expensive flying around.

And, when you get right down to it, what the Endeavour crew was doing was fixing a satellite so people could make more phone calls and see more TV pictures.

But when those astronauts wrestled that satellite into the shuttle, I thought: Hey, this country can do anything. We can build a city in space and land on Mars and fly to Pluto if we really want to.

Was fixing that satellite easier than fixing our social problems here at home? You bet. A lot easier.

And could we have spent that $1 billion this mission cost to help the homeless and rebuild our cities and do all sorts of other good stuff? Sure. Theoretically. But we wouldn't have.

Instead, we probably would have spent the money on some congressman's pork-barrel project like building a Lawrence Welk Museum.

So if we're going to blow the dough, I'd rather blow it in space. At least it shows what we can do when the going gets tough. Like when the satellite was fixed -- no taking it back to the shop; we did it on the spot -- and the Endeavour crew was ready to launch it back into space and they counted down: "Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One." And nothing happened.

Nobody panicked. They got ready to try it again and the Johnson Space Center in Houston told them what to do, and Astronaut Kathryn Thornton (that's the one they kept calling "K. T.") said she was going to do it her way. NASA officials were smart enough to let her and the satellite got launched.

And the next morning, there were front-page headlines for a space mission. Imagine that: Front-page headlines for a space mission that didn't go wrong, that didn't kill anybody, that didn't blow up.

Doing what we did this week does not make us a great country. It does not make us a good country.

But it makes us a country that can take on a tough job. And do it right. And do it when no other nation on this planet could have even come close.

And I say: Good for us. For a change.

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