Aside from an inexplicable urge to apply for the Journalist in Space program (I sat down until the feeling passed), there was never the slightest chance I would ever rocket off this Earth -- to become weightless and babble Spacespeak, that clipped nonlanguage in which the death of seven persons is called an "anomaly."
But I do fly quite a bit. I used to do it mostly for fun, but now I do it almost entirely for business, and worry a lot that I will descend in a flaming anomaly. For that reason, I see the investigation into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger as something that applies not only to the space program but to all forms of air transportation. The witnesses keep saying NASA, but I keep hearing TWA.
I choose TWA totally at random. I could have chosen Eastern or American, United or Pan Am. In fact, I could have chosen any of the airlines which, since deregulation, have been cutting fares, hammering their employees and offering bonus miles. All this suggests that safety is not job one. Making a buck is.
Just recently, leaders of the airlines pilots' union said that United Airlines, the nation's largest, was cutting costs by observing only minimal safety standards. Maybe. Union leaders sometimes say things for bargaining purposes that they cannot substantiate. (United responded by citing its safety record; not a single serious incident in 1985.)
Similar charges were leveled against Continental, Western and Eastern airlines, and American paid a $1.5 million fine to the Federal Aviation Administration in settlement of charges that its maintenance program was not up to snuff. It denied any violation.
The NASA investigation is, of course, about the shuttle -- the one that goes into space, not the steerage-class one that scurries between Boston, New York and Washington for Eastern Airlines. But even on the nonprofit space shuttle, there were pressures. The program was behind schedule. There had been criticism. The president was going to refer to the shuttle in his State of the Union message. Morton Thiokol Inc., the maker of the rocket, was at the time negotiating a $1 billion NASA contract. A plucky and winning schoolteacher was being kept waiting, and, of course, space scientists, like anyone else, like to get on with it. It's the reason, storm or no storm, we drive to grandma's for Christmas. A schedule has almost a moral weight.
But even so, a moment of national epiphany -- an instance when a light bulb of comprehension went on in all our heads -- occurred when we learned that an engineer who had been arguing against launch because of the cold was given some harberdashery advice: "Take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat." Robert K. Lund, a Morton Thiokol vice president for engineering, was told. All of a sudden, the world looked different.
No enterprise, no company, can ever be totally shielded from financial pressures -- nor, probably, should it be. But deregulation has put enormous pressure on U.S. airlines. Eastern, a wounded bird, fled into the wings of Texas Air to avoid bankruptcy. Continental went bust in one life, reorganized and returned sans its old unions. TWA is buying Ozark, and mighty Pan Am, for decades an American presence in the Pacific and Manhattan, had to sell both its office buildings and its once-storied routes to the Orient.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the NASA tragedy. Pick what you want. But for me, the explosion of the shuttle proves once again that safety is always an orphan. When it comes to the airlines industry, unless either profits are once again guaranteed or the government once again takes regulation seriously, the constant scratching for uck is going to push aside safety concerns. It is too much to ask that an airlines industry scrapping for every dollar, penalized financially for every plane in the shop and demoralized in the work force by union-busting tactics and the specter of bankruptcies is not going to tell some pilot what Lund was told at NASA: Put on your management hat. When that happens, not even a helmet will help us.