Pioneers, scientists, heroes


As memorial services for Columbia's seven astronauts continue today in Washington, a kind of secular liturgy plays out. Stylized rhetoric of resolution and recommitment will accompany ceremonial images of public grief. The familiar code of "national mourning" will give shape and meaning to a tragedy that, by now, is simply accepted as a sacrifice.

The outpouring of emotion is both genuine and customary; a storm of media coverage, which began with Saturday's news, unfolds like a familiar script.

What does it mean? Why does the accidental death of astronauts - more than soldiers, police officers or perhaps any national figure other than a president - evoke such a powerful, predictable response?

These were not just men and women, we are told. They were not commonplace heroes. Since the Cold War, astronauts have served as symbolic figures largely engaged in missionary work in a realm defined by the language of a secular faith.

Manned space, as it is known, has always been wrapped in ideals. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy asked Congress for $9 billion to take an astronaut to the moon, fully acknowledging that "no one can predict with certainty what the ultimate meaning will be."

Although others tried to define the uses of space - whether flights would be manned or strictly mechanical, whether projects would be for military or civilian uses - in the environment of a Cold War those decisions were easy. Political events defined the challenge. America would conquer space for freedom. Astronauts would lead the charge. It was not a matter of decision, but of destiny.

And so for more than 40 years, the manned space program has been the challenge of faith in search of meaning. Shaped by political events, political rhetoric and a smooth public relations machine at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the mission of astronauts has succeeded by an extraordinary melding of beliefs in technological progress, frontier myths and American values.

In 1985, after the Challenger disaster, President Reagan reaffirmed commitment to this mission: "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted," he said. "It belongs to the brave. Nothing ends here. Our hopes and journeys continue."

In words that echoed that same commitment, President Bush said Saturday in his address to the nation: "These men and women assumed great risk in the service to all humanity. ... The cause in which they died will continue. ... Our journey into space will go on."

Interestingly, in recent times, the "mission" and "journey" of space shuttle astronauts has gone on largely without much comment until a tragedy occurs. The great cause to which presidents refer gets minor mention in the news. Shuttle missions - carefully orchestrated to include men and women, people of color, representatives of various faiths and ethnic backgrounds - take place five or six times a year with some fanfare but little public regard.

What do they do? Unexceptional science experiments that are sometimes little more than symbolic exercises. The Columbia's mission, for instance, included an experiment to study tomato seeds from a preschool class at a Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.

This is hardly news. During times less tainted by tragedy, critics have referred to the missions as a "circus ... flag-pole sitting." Supported by a vast infrastructure of national space flight centers, the manned space program has an estimated cost of $500 million per flight, a sum that could be considerably lessened, critics say, if the money was spent to develop a more productive reusable launch vehicle.

Alex Roland, a Duke University specialist in American space policy, has often decried this paradoxical state of affairs. The shuttle's "ruinous tax on our civilian space program," he says, ties "us to an expensive, limited, fragile and risky transportation system," while the "public myth" promoted by politicians and NASA officials ties astronauts to flights in an outdated spacecraft.

The truth is, the most cost efficient and productive explorers in space have always been unmanned vehicles. Uninhabited satellites and probes brought the world global and mobile communications, sophisticated meteorological sciences, military reconnaissance, mapping of oceans and astonishing astronomy. But the story Americans tell the world about their space program is different. Americans talk about astronauts.

The symbolic value is so prized that, despite their inefficiency and costs, manned programs historically have consumed two-thirds of NASA's funding; automated spacecraft have taken only a third. Astronauts are so central to our national identity that within hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, many were secured in hidden locations, protected from harm.

Astronauts understand their symbolic function. Carefully chosen to be representatives of the values that Americans prize, they are without exception intelligent, athletic, hard-working, devoted to God and country and democratic aims. They are professionals whose role in the theater of space, they know, is often ceremonial. We call them "pioneers," even though they have been at it for more than 40 years. We call them "heroes," even though most people probably know little about what they actually do. Astronauts today remain monumental figures, even though they are increasingly known merely as a team of working scientists in space.

The ceremonial aspects are so important that last week, in the midst of their science experiments, Columbia's astronauts stopped working at 11:38 a.m. EST to recognize the 17th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. In Houston, at the Johnson Space Center, the silence was followed by the ringing of a bell for each astronaut killed. Columbia's crew expressed gratitude for those who preceded them, "giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind," Columbia commander Rick Husband said.

By faith, the shuttle's astronauts were Hindu, Roman Catholic, Jewish, Charismatic Christian, Unitarian, Episcopalian and Baptist. By heritage they were Indian, Israeli, American. By color, black, white and brown. The imagery was unmistakable, the values expressed, again undeniable.

It is no surprise that Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison responded to the accident by saying the tragedy should not deter the space program. ("We can't step back," she said. "We wouldn't be the greatest country on Earth if we did.") Of course, the space program does a big business in Texas, so her verve might have been simply a defense of constituent interests. But the same note of resolve sounded was also heard around the world.

Newspaper editorials from New York to San Francisco, Japan to South Africa, underscored much the same theme as The New Zealand Herald: "The sad loss of five men and two women representing a mosaic of races and nationalities will not weaken [American] resolve. Manned space flight is worth the risk." The Economist of London observed that for many "the best way to honour the dead astronauts would be to persevere with the manned-flight programme."

Make no mistake, the accidental death of Columbia's crew was, indeed, a human sacrifice. Unintentional. Unnecessary. But also so rife with meaning that a nation cannot help but mourn today and, perhaps, tomorrow force itself to question what the ultimate sacrifice of its astronauts has come to represent in profession of its secular faith.

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