In a simpler, more superstitious age, the appearance of a fireball in the sky on the day of a great national ceremony would have been taken as a warning sign, an omen that the gods were angry. In our scientific era, the shock and grief over the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew were followed by a one-week postponement of the State of the Union address and a search for the faulty piece of equipment.
"How Could It Happen?" the usually restrained New York Times asked in a large-type, front-page headline. Not "How Did It Happen?" but "How Could It Happen?" -- as if the news lay in the effrontery of the occurrence. "Fuel Tank Leak Feared," the second line of the headline replied.
On television, puzzled space-agency officials kept repeating that the computer readouts from all the on-board instruments were normal until the moment of disaster. They sounded like kids opening a Cracker Jack box and finding no prize. How Could It Happen?
We cannot escape the envelope of culture in which we live, so those responses seem normal to us. In this post-industrial era, if a complex piece of machinery breaks down, the reflex is to seek out the malfunction, repair it and move on.
Anyone who suggested half-seriously that the import of the Challenger incident was to remind us of the sin of pride or hubris would be quickly replaced before the "Nightline" cameras by an aerospace engineer from Hughes. The last possibility that we wish to consider is that the answer to this mystery is not to be found in a NASA manual but in the myth of Icarus, who flew too close to the sun with the wings his father had fashioned of feathers and wax, and perished in the sea.
Rational, scientific man seeks rational, scientific answers. And yet, when confronted, as we all were, by the vivid image of fiery death and destruction exploding against the peaceful blue sky, a part of our primal, pre-scientific soul responds. When that image is etched deeper and deeper
TAKE 027108 PAGE 00002 TIME 15:09 DATE 02-02-86 into our consciousness by the television reruns, it demands answers more basic than a faulty nozzle or a punctured fuel pump.
The answer, to my mind, has to be another question: Foolish mortal, what ever made you think you could explore the mysteries of the universe without risk, without danger, without death? When you set your goal as "zero defects," were you really so vain as to believe that fallible man could attain perfection?
The search for the broken parts or the faulty design is the proper focus for the experts; they have the responsibility for getting the next mission aloft as safely and swiftly as possible. But the rest of us might, in this time of national mourning for our seven brave countrymen and women, ask the harder question of ourselves: Do we really believe, in this and other areas of our national life, that we can avoid paying the price for what we achieve and enjoy?
If we believe that, we are -- for all our science, technology and knowledge -- far more naive than our predecessors in this land. They knew that the struggle to achieve independence, to tame the frontier, to preserve the Union, to conquer disease and prejudice and to protect freedom has always entailed sacrifice -- of lives and of treasure.
It is only in this shallow, self-centered age that we are so foolish as to suppose that there can be gain without pain, triumph without tragedy. The conceit has invaded our language. We speak of enormously costly programs as "entitlements," as if they were a gift of the gods. We hide our massive debts behind the weasel-word "deficits" as a way of concealing our generation's profligacy. We delude ourselves into thinking that we can have prosperity in the cities and calamity on the farms; that the elderecure, while more and more children live in poverty; that we can arm those we call "freedom fighters" and destroy those we call "rebels"; and even, vanity of vanities, build a "shield" that will render harmless those frightening weapons we and our adversaries possess.
The men who founded this nation and who preserved it in its most troubled hours knew better than to tempt the fates by such arrogance. In his Second Inaugural, Lincoln said:
TAKE 027108 PAGE 00003 TIME 15:09 DATE 02-02-86 "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman's 250 years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago, so still it must be said, that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
It was said, before Challenger turned into a fireball in the sky, raining down broken bits of metal and human flesh on the ocean waves, that President Reagan was preparing an "upbeat and optimistic" State of the Union message. It may be that what this nation, in its pride and innocence, needs to hear is that our debts -- to history, to science, to each other and to God -- must be paid.