Coverage from the day space shuttle Challenger exploded: Shuttle missions should go on but without civilian passengers

It is always shocking to see people die, and the shock of seeing the space shuttle Challenger explode and kill seven crew members was a terrible and painful blow. Still, if possible, we must keep even this awful thing in perspective.

Perhaps 24 successful flights of the shuttles had lulled not only us but NASA itself into forgetting what a risk-laden venture space operations are. Any time you put that much highly explosive fuel in one place there is danger of explosion or fire. It is not possible for man to engineer perfection even in a relatively simple machine such as a car and the space shuttle is incredibly complex. If something is man-made, it will malfunction and there is always the possibility that a malfunction can be fatal.

If anything is to be learned from this tragedy, it is that NASA should reconsider its public relations program of putting civilians on the shuttle. The professional astronauts know what the risks are and are paid to take them. Civilians aren't. As this tragedy illustrates, a public relations stunt that has the potential to backfire so catastrophically is a bad idea to begin with. The death of Christa McAuliffe is not the same as the death of the astronauts who chose a profession in which death is a calculated risk. At least it will be perceived differently by the public.

Another point to keep in mind is the inherent media intensity. Because these people died on camera, so to speak, in such a spectacular fashion, their deaths received unprecedented attention. People die every day -- including schoolteachers. More than 50,000 Americans a year die in highway accidents and another 20,000 are murdered. The overwhelming majority of them manage to die outside the range of live TV cameras. I say this not to minimize the poignancy and pain of the crew's deaths, but to remind us that in age of electronic communications death on camera is treated differently than death off camera and sometimes with obsessive interest.

Other than reconsidering the scheme of orbiting civilians, NASA should proceed with its program. Losses have to be a calculated part of any venture involving risk. When people get killed in risky but worthwhile ventures there is nothing to do but grieve for them and go on.

Finally, the tragedy of Challenger should remind us all of the ephemeral nature of life. We tend to forget that. We tend to think that we will go on forever and that our neat, comfortable world will continue indefinitely. But the reality is always that the status quo is an illusion, that change is always at work in both our own lives and in our environment.

A long time ago Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a wonderful essay. It made the point that just for an ordinary human being to live is an act of courage. All of us live under a death sentence. As he said, what courage it takes to face life with a cheerful heart, to fall in love, to create new life, to go to work everyday, to make plans for an uncertain future.

To sit in a shuttle atop such an explosive amount of fuel, to ride a fireball into the hostile environment of space, is an act of extraordinary courage. In dying, the crew members of Challenger, reminded us of just how courageous an act it is. It is a calculated risk that most of us would decline to take.

Mrs. McAuliffe surely knew she was risking her life and did it, I feel certain, because she thought the risk was worth the inspiration she could give other teachers and children. I hope people, especially the children, appreciate that she sacrificed her life for something she believed was worth it: them. Like the soldier who never intends to die but often does, she exchanged her life for a higher value.

A great deal of the good things about human life are possible because people believe some things are more valuable than their own individual lives. Many people have died to achieve goals that would benefit their survivors or even subsequent generations.

So long as there are people who believe there is more to life than the biological functioning of the individual, the human society will struggle on toward a better, more humane and richer future.

Christa McAuliffe and fellow crew members join a distinguished and very long list of people who were willing to pay the ultimate price of human progress.

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