The Columbia tragedy has produced something of a generation gap.

Those over a certain age, who grew up with the space program, see it the way most of the media see it, as a huge, gripping national calamity.

Those who grew up in an era when the space shuttle was as common as the Delta shuttle don't quite get it. They see what happened as more like a plane crash that happened to involve a very big plane.

This group sees the media going totally overboard. They watch the saturation coverage and wonder why the death of seven people is so much more important than, say, Iraq or other world events.

Perhaps the exploration of space just seems inherently more noble to those who remember when John Glenn got a tickertape parade for orbiting the Earth, when JFK was taking on the Sputnik program in trying to beat the Soviets to the moon. No one asked why. There was a Cold War on.

And the buildup to the Challenger was so much greater in 1986 than for last month's Columbia launch, in part because the earlier flight took along a schoolteacher in an attempt by NASA to build public support for the shuttle. Anyone who remembers that sad day undoubtedly felt an extra twinge last weekend when a second shuttle disappeared in the sky, right before our eyes.

But without that emotional baggage, the story apparently doesn't have the same resonance.

Some of these conflicting views surfaced in our online chat yesterday.

"Arlington, Mass.: An informal survey of friends in my age group, all of whom were in elementary school during the Challenger tragedy, showed that while there is great sympathy for the loss of lives, this doesn't rise up to the level of 'where were you when [XYZ] happened' of the Challenger or 9/11. Seems however, that the media is aggressively promoting the hyper-importance of the event to a nation already numbed by 3,000 dead in a terrorist attack."

Washington, D.C.: "I was positively transported back to my desk in high school. It was an odd juxtaposition, because I remember how big a national tragedy Challenger seemed to me while Columbia seems like a drop in the bucket."

Others just find the nonstop TV coverage to be way over the top:

"San Francisco: I watched very little television because for about 24 hours, every time that I turned on the TV I was disappointed to see that programs were still being preempted for news reports of the space tragedy. It would not be so bad if they had new information to report, but almost everything I heard was the continuous repetition of what was reported earlier."

"Washington, D.C.: Is it just me or is the media over dramatizing its coverage of Columbia. I'm certainly sad for the families of these astronauts, but I don't get the sense that the 'nation is grieving' as so many news anchors put it yesterday. The space mission is fraught with enormous risks so I wish the media would not act like the world has ended when one of these risks proves deadly."

Yes, the coverage was repetitive and frustrating. You were seeing the raw sausage-making of journalism: long hours of unanswered questions, tedious and technical press conferences, the interviewing of experts who are largely speculating. In '86, there was one cable news outlet, CNN, and many people didn't have cable. Saturation coverage today has a whole different meaning. And cable anchors have to keep recycling what little they know because viewers drift in and out.

Are the networks (not to mention the newspapers and Time and Newsweek, which crashed new cover stories Saturday) merchandising this story? To some degree. But there is enormous public interest, at least among those of a certain age. And the Columbia explosion also raises fundamental questions about the future of space travel in a way that, say, the sad death of JFK Jr. (which also produced a media frenzy) did not.

We're not sure how long the coverage will continue at this level of intensity, but some people won't be sorry to see it fade.

That includes the Washington Times(http://washingtontimes.com/national/20030204-76628184.htm):

"News coverage of the lost Space Shuttle Columbia has become mired in a culture of grief and mourning for days.

"Enough already.

"While thoughtful or straightforward stories about loss or memorial services are appropriate, the unabated use of sorrow as a theme and dramatic device gets old, and ultimately serves to trivialize the event."

Isn't it amazing that whatever the meltdown -- 9/11 (remember the FBI agent in Phoenix), Enron, WorldCom -- there's always someone who raised the red flag, to no avail?

"A former NASA safety official wrote President Bush last August to warn of 'another catastrophic space shuttle accident,' but the president never saw the letter and the warning was rejected, the White House revealed yesterday," the New York Post (http://www.nypost.com/news/nationalnews/68321.htm) says.

"The stunning disclosure came as a NASA official said 'the root cause' of the shuttle Columbia tragedy was probably a piece of foam knocking off thermal tiles -- a problem originally pooh-poohed by the space agency's 'best and brightest' minds.

"Don Nelson, an engineer who worked for NASA for 36 years, begged Bush to declare a moratorium on shuttle flights until safety issues were addressed. The whistleblower cited an inspection two years earlier that found 3,500 wiring defects in Columbia, and a July government report that found the shuttle-safety program wasn't properly managed."

This time, however, NASA officials appear more open with the public in the way they are conducting their news briefings. We have some previous experience with how NASA responds to criticism. Back in 1991, we wrote about Gregg Easterbrook blasting the space program in the New Republic ("Space Lemons"), The Washington Post ("Lost in Space") and the Los Angeles Times ("Radio Shack's Computers Are More Advanced Than the Shuttle's").

NASA fired back with an eight-page government report attacking Easterbrook -- although, with the exception of one mistake admitted by the journalist, the other points involved conflicting interpretations of data.

"One of the bad signs about NASA is that instead of fixing themselves, they dedicate all this time and energy to complaining about being criticized," Easterbrook said at the time. He had considerable standing, having written a 1980 Washington Monthly article questioning the safety of NASA's solid-booster rockets, six years before the Challenger blew up.

The Bush administration is not exactly lowering expectations for Colin Powell's dog-and-pony show tomorrow:

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell declared today that he would provide a 'compelling demonstration' on Wednesday that the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein 'is concealing the evidence of his weapons of mass destruction, while preserving the weapons themselves,'" says the New York Times(http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/03/international/middleeast/03CND_IRAQ.html).

"Mr. Powell is scheduled to present evidence against Iraq during a speech to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday. And even in a capital preoccupied with the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, the White House made it clear today that Mr. Powell's presentation would be delivered as planned and that the administration's focus on Iraq would not be deterred."

How important is Powell's presentation? Just ask USA Today(http://usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-02-03-poll-usat_x.htm):

"Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation of weapons evidence against Iraq to the United Nations on Wednesday is not only critical for gaining international support for going to war, but also crucial for winning greater American public backing, a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows.

"Overall, 58% of those surveyed favor invading Iraq with United States ground troops to oust Saddam Hussein. That's up from 52% a week ago, before President Bush's State of the Union speech, which he used to try to bolster his case.

"But half of the 58% in support, and half of the 38% in opposition, say they still could change their minds depending on further developments. A full 87% say they are looking to the Powell presentation to convince them."

This must be poll week, so here are some more numbers, from the Los Angeles Times(http://www.latimes.com/news/custom/timespoll/la-na-poll4feb04,0,5820310.story?coll=la%2Dhome%2Dheadlines):

"Even after President Bush's stern State of the Union address, most Americans remain reluctant to invade Iraq without explicit U.N. authorization, though a narrow majority would support acting with a smaller coalition of willing nations, a Los Angeles Times Poll has found.

"The survey portrays a nation enormously ambivalent about the prospect of a second Persian Gulf War; it shows Americans to be unconvinced that the evidence thus far justifies an invasion, hesitant to act without more international support, yet convinced war is inevitable and narrowly inclined to trust Bush's judgment about whether and when it should come."

Bush's approval rating: 56 percent. "The president continues to draw enormous, almost unprecedented levels of support from Republicans and conservatives on virtually every question. But on his priorities at home and abroad, he's facing hardening opposition from Democrats and rising wariness from independents.

"Bush's approval rating among independents, the critical swing vote in presidential politics, fell to 51 percent in the survey, a 12-point drop just from a Times poll in December."

The Bush red-ink budget was unveiled yesterday, not that anyone would notice amid all the shuttle coverage on TV.

"The Bush administration unveiled an aggressive budget plan that directs the largest increases to the military and domestic security and puts a lid on many social programs, while creating record deficits for the foreseeable future," says the Wall Street Journal.

"The administration's priorities are slated for the biggest gains. Defense spending would be boosted by 4.4% over the current fiscal year, homeland security by 8% and education by 6%.

"The price tag for those increases: squeezing domestic programs, including public housing, health care for the poor, and the environment. Among those budgets pegged for increases near the inflation rate are Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1.3%, and Health and Human Services, 2.6%. Both the Labor Department and the Environmental Protection Agency would see no increases."

Tight budgets for the poor and the environment? What a shock.

The New Republic's (http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=life&s=cottle013103) Michelle Cottle comes up with a new explanation for the bipolar State of the Union:

"Biology is destiny. That's all I could think while watching George W. Bush deliver his State of the Union speech this week. No, I'm not talking about the fact that there's no way in hell this guy would have been elected mayor of Scranton, much less leader of the free world, if he'd been born into a less exalted family.

"But some sort of bizarre genetic predestination seems the only way to explain how a president who is said to live in terror of repeating the mistakes of his father seems determined to do just that. Specifically, I refer to the prevailing sense that Poppy's foreign policy obsession left him with little interest in the nation's economic troubles. Bush I never convinced average Americans he felt their pain, and thus in 1992 voters were forced to gently remind him that it was the economy, Stupid.

"George W. absorbed the harsh lesson of his dad's perceived lack of empathy. Perhaps more importantly, Karl Rove absorbed this lesson. And political watchers pretty much agree that this Bush administration is flat-out desperate to show America how much it cares about the little guy's money troubles. But W., God love him, at times just can't quite pull off the charade. The first half of his SOTU speech--the part focused on domestic and economic issues--was your typical laundry list of policy ideas (with $10 billion extra in AIDS funding for Africa thrown in), with an early emphasis on the latest budget-busting tax-whacks this president favors. Bush's delivery had all of the oomph of a bored seventh-grader presenting a book report.

"Once Saddam became the subject, however, it was as though a switch had been thrown and the president sprang to life. But since most polls indicate that a majority of Americans consider the ailing economy--more than Iraq or even terrorism--to be the number one problem facing the nation, you'd think the president could have avoided looking quite so uninspired while addressing matters unrelated to war."

The Wall Street Journal kicked up a bit of a fuss last week when its editorial page got into the global diplomacy business and its front page trumpeted that as news. Now the editorial page is taking on the critics:

"The statement we published last week from eight European leaders in support of U.S. Iraq policy has caused much consternation, especially in France and Germany but also among American media ethicists. How delightful, and instructive.

"Our sin seems to be that we assisted in exposing as fraudulent the conventional wisdom that France and Germany speak for all of Europe, and that all of Europe is now anti-American. Those ideas were always false, but they were peddled as true because they served the political purposes of those, both in Europe and America, who oppose President Bush on Iraq. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"This newspaper has editors based in Europe, and their insight was that the views of the Continent's pro-American majority weren't being heard. In most newsrooms, they call this having sources and a nose for news. That's why our editors decided to solicit an op-ed from the leaders of Italy, Spain and Britain, as Michael Gonzalez explains. The leaders then took it from there, writing the op-ed and gathering signatures from the nations of 'New Europe.'

"The fact that a newspaper would practice such journalism has caused some wonderful exasperation, and even conspiracy theories. The normally serious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung ended its report on Friday with this probing question: 'Did The Wall Street Journal really come up with the idea to suggest a declaration by the eight leaders, or did someone lend a helping hand?' The French newspaper Liberation, also scooped on its own turf, wrote that, 'The very strong links between The Wall Street Journal and the "hawks" of the Bush Administration also raise the question of the role Washington played in the initiative.'

"We admit to having sources in the Bush Administration, among other places, but they had nothing to do with our soliciting European leaders. We've been in favor of ousting Saddam Hussein for years, going back to the Gulf War and long before President Bush made it his policy. If the op-ed by Europe's leaders somehow helped Mr. Bush's diplomacy in addition to selling newspapers, that's fine with us.

"We've also come in for some criticism from the usual suspects in the U.S., in particular one Orville Schell, dean of something called Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. The 'pro-Bush' op-ed 'reminds one of the old adage: "If you don't like the news, go out and make some yourself,"' Mr. Schell told the Los Angeles Times. We remember when journalism schools taught students how to find a story, not ignore one because it disagrees with their political views. His students should demand a refund."

http://opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=110003021

Boston Phoenix's (http://www.bostonphoenix.com/medialog/index.asp) Dan Kennedy opines on the resonance of the Columbia disaster:

"On CNN Sunday night, anchor Aaron Brown choked up for a moment after a particularly emotional report -- a perfectly appropriate reaction, obviously. But at the risk of sounding disrespectful, I suspect that this story -- barring any startling news about the cause of the explosion -- doesn't have the legs of the story that played out more than 16 years ago.

"The space program is so peripheral to the culture these days that even when a shuttle mission is taking place, most of us are unaware of it. That takes nothing away from the courage and dedication of the seven astronauts who were killed, or of the others who will take their place. It just is."

How come we only find out at campaign time that these candidates are (part) Jewish? First Wesley Clark, now John Kerry, with the Boston Globe (http://boston.com/dailyglobe2/033/nation/Search_for_Kerry_s_roots_fins_surprising_history_is_probably_best+.shtml) tracking the history of his grandfather:

"The story, it turns out, began in a small town in the Czech Republic that once was part of the Austrian empire. Birth records there show that Frederick A. Kerry was born as Fritz Kohn to Jewish parents, according to a genealogy specialist hired by the Globe. Kohn changed his name to Kerry around 1902 and emigrated to the United States in 1905, eventually moving to Boston. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Kerry said he learned about 15 years ago that his grandmother was Jewish. That led to years of unsuccessful efforts to learn more about his grandfather's roots and his own. 'This is amazing; that is fascinating to me,' Kerry said."

What's next? Joe Lieberman discovering a long-lost Catholic relative?