Shuttle wasn't the disaster we were expecting


WE WERE A country braced and cringing as we waited for the next blow to fall. We thought we knew the direction from which it would come.

Our soldiers, poised on the borders of Iraq, would lurch forward at the sound of the starter's pistol, and they would begin to die. That day was coming soon, and we were ready for it.

But when the blow came Saturday morning, it flew at us from a wholly unexpected direction, and we were stunned by the surprise, as well as the force of it.

There were white plumes of smoke against a bright blue sky, and we watched helplessly as astronauts fell to Earth.

Some of us, me included, didn't even know the seven men and women were up there. But today, their faces and their life stories are as familiar as if they were my neighbors. Thanks to the miracle of film, I have seen them laughing and heard them speak of their faith in God.

In death, the astronauts are praised as unspoiled heroes, pure and embodying the best part of the human spirit.

They reflected not only the fundamental drive of mankind into the unknown, but also the supremacy of the United States in the global community.

Their loss will unite this country in a period of mourning and cause its leaders to soberly reconsider space exploration - never a mere science project but a fundamental part of how America thinks of itself.

But last week, four American servicemen died when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Afghanistan, and I'll bet you don't know their names. You might not even have heard of that accident, but it, too, claimed the lives of volunteers in service to America's vision of itself.

Forty-seven American military men have died in that region since the United States invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. Some were killed by our enemies, but some died as the result of the same kind of unavoidable accident or stupid mistake that will probably be found as the cause of the Columbia disaster.

Regular broadcasts were not interrupted when most of these servicemen died; flags were not lowered; flowers were not piled high in tearful tribute. There were few televised interviews with the wives and mothers they left behind.

We have a special place on our national trophy shelf for astronauts, and we are right to hold them in such enormous regard. They ride rockets - giant bombs - into space, sometimes for no more reason than because someone on Earth wants to know how ants react to weightlessness.

And from their vantage point 200 miles above the Earth, they see the world in a special way: whole, beautiful, unsullied, serene. And they are eloquent and ebullient in describing what this view of the world means to them:

"From space, Israel looks like it does on a map: small but charming," Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon said.

Said pilot William McCool: "There's nothing better than listening to a good album and looking out the windows and watching the world go by while you pedal on a bike."

We are about to enter a war that could break that world into pieces, and I doubt that we will glorify the dedicated young men and women who will die in dutiful service to this American vision in the same way we will honor our dead astronauts.

That is how we pay tribute to citizen-pioneers, who are eulogized today as instruments of peace. But it is not how we honor citizen-soldiers, who will be called to make war to preserve that peace. Their sacrifices will be silent, anonymous, private.

Perhaps our tribute to the servicemen who died in that helicopter crash, and the ones who will surely die if the United States plunges into Iraq, can be made in a roundabout way.

Let us honor all those who die in service to America's view of the world by meditating on the Earth as the astronauts beheld it: whole, beautiful, fragile and peaceful.

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