The catastrophe at Cape Canaveral has rocked the country in a special way. Upon being advised that the Challenger had blown up, the president asked, "Is that the one the teacher was on?" -- unerringly putting his finger on the source of the explosion of public and official dismay.
The 25th space shuttle flight was to most Americans, other than the families and friends of the six other brave people on board, the flight of Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, N.H.
Bound for glory, she was killed 74 seconds after takeoff, 10 miles up. She never made it to outer space. A mysterious explosion tore the Challenger apart, distorted its silver bullet shape into a surrealistic outline of a gigantic exotic bird with a grotesquely long neck.
As millions watched open-mouthed, a parachute appeared on the screen. It was a flash of false hope.
The faces of Christa McAuliffe's parents were shown, jubilant at first, then frozen in horror.
The question is why was she there? She wanted to be, no question. She had eagerly participated in NASA's most ambitious public relations campaign, a contest to choose the first teacher to be blasted off the Earth.
She knew, she said, in one of the innumerable interviews she cheerfully gave after her selection from among 11,000 applicants, that NASA would benefit enormously from her presence on the craft, but it didn't bother her. She thought the rewards for a teacher would be comparable. Two rather hokey cabin-classroom sessions were planned -- an exercise that NASA thought would give earthlings a new enthusiasm for its expensive and increasingly frequent shuttle launches.
McAuliffe had the right stuff. She was an exceptionally winning and buoyant personality. She seemed the kind of person who could cope with the multiple demands made on space-age women. She was a wife, a teacher and a mother. The training program that took her away from home, the coming claims of greater celebritydom all seemed within her management.
She had two children, Scott, 9, and Caroline, 6. Over and over again, after the television replays of the horror, we heard that Caroline had not wanted her mother to go into space. We watched her saying she wanted her mother in the house.
The catastrophe at Canaveral will occasion questions about sending civilians on dangerous mission, especially mothers of young children. What McAuliffe taught us -- posthumously, to our great grief -- is that there are limits to technology. It made us wonder if a spacecraft is the place for amateurs. The others were professional astronauts, trained for danger. McAuliffe put her total faith in official declarations that space travel is quite safe.
Almost immediately, a chorus formed to say that the only proper memorial to Christa McAuliffe and the six teammates who died with her was to continue the space program. It was led by the president, who said, "There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space."
But should there be? Professor Thomas Gold, a respected astronomist at Cornell University, appeared on the "McNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" while the networks were pouring out reminiscences, data and conjecture about the cause of the blowup -- to say that manned flights are unnecessary and wrong. Unmanned space flights bring back as much information, without gigantic risks to astronauts. "Look what we are getting from Uranus with instruments," he said.
"Sending up human beings is merely for public relations, to popularize the space program," the professor said in a telephone interview. "It is easy to say it afterwards, but I said it before this disaster. These people are not performing serious scientific experiments. They are passing the time in space and make the pretense that the public is involved. It was a terrible thing for NASA even to suggest it. The idea of sending people on this dicey business for public display, while we are short-changing the utilitarian and scientific programs is ludicrous."
The implications of the tragedy are unsettling and not just for the space program. The president must consider that "Star Wars," a space-based program, is the ultimate in the high technology that failed the Challenger. Its premise is that millions of gadgets, with hairline timing, will function flawlessly on computer command -- when missiles start flying.
That proposition is now in deeper doubt, especially among people who think that Earth's solutions will be provided on Earth -- and that we cannot spare good teachers.