I am among the 1,703 reporters who applied to be NASA's first journalist in space, and in the wake of last week's shuttle disaster, I still want to go. As soon as possible. Another teacher should go too, and poets and gas station attendants and anyone else who wants to make the trip.
With the death of teacher Christa McAuliffe, there is a growing murmur against the idea of having civilians in space. That should stop.
The argument is that McAuliffe was launched only to help build public enthusiasm, and thereby congressional support, for a program running short of money for its grandiose plans. It's bad enough to kill astronauts for goals as easily achieved by unmanned flights, according to this critique, but at least they are professional NASA employees and the risk comes with the job. McAuliffe died pointlessly, "a blood sacrifice to the volcano god" of NASA ambition, as a colleague of mine put it.
It is certainly true that NASA wants a cheering section, and as its 12-page application form for journalists made clear, it wants the news media to lead the applause. We were asked not what new angles we would cover but how we would "share the experience of space travel" with the earthbound. But is there a cause or a politician on the planet who does not want the same thing? The media are always subject to being used by their sources; that's how the public conducts a debate. Reporters get invited into the parlor, but they are paid to have the nasty habit of looking under the rug.
Adventurous civilians have been involved in every exploratory effort mankind has ever made. If an unmanned robot ship had sailed to the New World instead of Christopher Columbus, it would have radioed back that this wasn't India, so forget it. If nobody but Army garrisons had ventured west of Baltimore, South Dakota would still belong to the Sioux. If the Wright brothers had stuck to bicycles, if Darwin hadn't gone exploring with the British navy . . . you get the idea. Officials may launch an effort, but determined civilians make it permanent -- and, in their lack of discipline, they take it in unexpected directions, even if some of them die in the process.
Space is a blank slate, a new start, a lot of mysteries of the kind restless people have always hungered after and journalists have always reported. If science knows how to go into space at all, civilians will go willy-nilly; some are already signing up to go by private rocket in fear that NASA won't have enough seats.
Sure, space shots are dangerous. We may all have forgotten that until Tuesday, just as we conveniently forget every day that cars are statistically close to suicide machines, that nuclear terrorism could blow us all away at any minute. I don't think Christa McAuliffe expected to die -- certainly her insurance company didn't expect to pay off the million-dollar policy it gave her -- but few people ever do expect it.
As a journalist, I know for a fact that I am completely death-proof because, of course, I never really take part in any of the riots, coups, civil wars and guerrilla firefights I have covered. Since I'm not really there, but only observing, I'm invulnerable; this keeps fear at bay so I can do my job and get the story. I would be justly pilloried if I wrote from the hotel bar only what I was told by officials. If I get killed reporting, it's not what I planned, but it's a risk I can handle.
We journalists and other civilians have to go into space because it is now possible and full of promise and -- not least -- because taxpayers are spending a lot of money on it. There may be no immediate scientific payoff, and the news may be bad, and NASA may be very sorry it let us come along. But it's an adventure civilians should share, and it's a story journalistsshould write. There's no question about it.