It was one of the few times you could get any kind of pleasure from seeing your tax dollars go up in smoke.
There is no shortage any more of stories that are made to order for television, but the space shuttle one also seemed made to order for us. It was as unifying in a positive way as the attempted assassination of the president had been in a negative way.
"Welcome home, Columbia," said the voice of Mission Control yesterday afternoon over stunning and fabulous live TV pictures of the space shuttle touching down. "Beautiful. Beautiful."
"That's hardly the word," corrected John Chancellor of NBC News. It's majestic." What a time to quibble over phraseology. But if, from time to time, network news commentators seemed to be standing in the way of the story -- as they have stood in the way of stories since the dawn of television -- it was also an occasion for which they could let their hair down (or, literally, roll up their sleeves) and enjoy themselves, and this enjoyment was infectious to observe and share.
Chancellor and Tom Brokaw, supposedly not particularly chummy off the air, seemed to get along very well; the spirit of the event overcame them, and more than one network reporter conceded that television was only conveying part of the power of the launch and the return. It was a gratifying and spellbinding visual and emotional experience for a TV viewer nonetheless.
Some may carp about the concessions made to television coverage in such cases. In fact, more could have been made: a live camera on Columbia recording the reentry and landing from its point of view, for example. It would cost a few million more, but then, the people watching it in homes and offices throughout America are the people who paid for it. They deserve the best possible view.
In effect, the scientific value of such an undertaking at a moment like this becomes less important than the therapeutic value of the television spectacle.
As it was, the shots of the launch were wonderful -- the piggybacked shuttle looking oddly like an airborne Taj Mahal -- and the shots of the landing were wonderful, from the first fuzzy white glimpse of the shuttle, when it resembled nothing more ominous than a blip in a Space Invaders video game, to the overhead shots of Columbia sitting motionless amid crisscross runway lines after it landed. Even the shots of Chancellor in his purple-tinted sunglasses -- he was forever looking into the wrong camera -- and the gradually darkening tans on Frank Reynolds' and Dan Rather's faces all became part of a felicitous and suspenseful monumental occasion.
If the mission was slow to grab the imagination at first, perhaps because we'd forgotten how the rhythms of national exhilaration go, it was almost impossible not to get caught up in it yesterday. "That's incredible," said Chancellor as the craft landed, "it looks like Los Angeles Airport and it's coming back from space!"
ABC aired a taped interview with "Right Stuff" author Tom Wolfe in his baby-blue suit and purple tie and with his round balding head perched on a high collar like he was something from Rodeo Drive on Venus, but not even from Wolfe was there any stretching for grandiose significance. It was all there, nicely understated by astronaut John Young in his remarks at the site of the landing: "We're really not too far -- the human race isn't -- from going to the stars."
Ah yes, the stars.
It remained for Chancellor to bring us realistically back to earth, closing NBC coverage with remarks about how low-level a representative (the secretary of the Air Force) the administration had sent to welcome home the heroes. Texan George Bush isn't even scheduled to go to meet the astronauts in Houston, Chancellor reported, and NASA research scientist Fitzhugh L. Fulton Jr. noted the administration's cuts in the space budget and the "distance" the White House has kept between itself and the space program.
How sad, and how richly we deserve the kind of spectacle television brought us yesterday. Apparently the stars, like everything else, will have to wait.