"OH, THE humanity!" Those words, spoken by a weeping radio announcer as he witnessed the explosion and fire that consumed the dirigible Hindenburg nearly 50 years ago, must have come to the minds of some people yesterday as they watched the terrible short flight of the space shuttle Challenger. For a few moments that announcer in New Jersey in 1937 was doing his best as a journalist, describing a disaster that was to prove a turning point in the history of aviation. But suddenly he was overcome by the sight of fellow human beings dying.
The radio and television journalists who brought the first word of yesterday's loss were similarly affected. For a few moments they were, like the rest of us, shaken and horrified by what they had seen, by what was the last thing they or any of the rest of us had expected to see: the deaths of seven people we thought were beginning another routine voyage into space.
So routine, in fact, had these shuttle takeoffs and landings become that many of us didn't bother to turn on the television anymore. All had gone so well so many times that we tended to forget what a combustible combination of fuel and rocket engines is needed to lift a 100-ton craft into orbit -- to move it in 10 minutes from Florida to a place high over the Indian Ocean. Remember the cartoons and columns making fun of a U.S. senator's shuttle trip -- and printed before the flight? They were the work of people certain that nothing could go wrong.
Now we have seen how far wrong things can go. This disaster will undoubtedly have its impact on decisions to be made about the future of American space exploration. But that debate is for another day. There can be no questioning the spirit of the people who have gone aloft in this country's 55 space trips. We were reminded yesterday of the courage it takes to board these outlandish craft and head off beyond the atmosphere, and of the quality of the people who devote their lives to getting a chance to do so.
It was painful to see the reruns of the explosion, and even more painful to see once again the seven crew members and passengers boarding the ship, a cheerful, varied and interesting lot looking forward to a great adventure. The disaster that befell them occurred, horrifyingly, before the eyes of their loved ones and of schoolchildren across the country who were watching this launch as part of an educational project. It was awful to see, but if such things are to be done they should be done in the open. We need to know the people involved and to see their humanity -- good people such as Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Michael Smith, Francis R. Scobee, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair and Judith Resnik.