One nation

Posted: Feb 04, 2003 12:00 AM
Two things were wrong when I switched on the television Saturday morning. The first was that they were discussing the space shuttle. Space shuttle landings usually merit about 3 seconds on television news and are carried live only on the NASA channel. The second discordant note was the voice of Buzz Aldrin, who doesn't usually give interviews for these workaday events. Within seconds, we learned the truth. At that point, NASA was saying only that it had "lost contact" with Columbia, but the time for landing had come and gone and Fox News already had ghastly video of a ball of fire streaking across the sky. Seven human beings were inside that hell. The Jewish prayer at such a moment is Baruch Dayan Emet, blessed be the judge of truth. What is so striking at times of national anguish like this one is the remarkable unity of this vast, disparate nation. Americans from north, south, east and west phoned radio stations and C-SPAN -- their accents testimony to the enduring influence of geography -- simply to express their grief and offer sympathy to the family and friends of the astronauts. Some callers were in tears. For most Americans, the horrible news hit like a body blow. We didn't know those people, but they were Americans, and that is enough to stir fraternal grief. We shouldn't take this national feeling for granted. It is difficult for people to feel sympathy and identification across great distances, and religious and cultural differences. I recall a college professor, psychiatrist Dr. Willard Gaylin, telling us that it is a perhaps unfortunate aspect of human nature that we feel it more if our child breaks his finger than if 1,000 people drown in a typhoon 7,000 miles away. This is clearly true, and yet American nationhood encompasses a continent of different ethnic, religious and racial groups. On Sept. 11, 2001, people in Spokane and Battle Creek and Nashville were devastated by what had been done to their fellow Americans in New York and Washington. Our sense of being one people transcends ethnic differences and foreshortens distances. Grieving Israel cannot seem to find any peace or happiness just now. In the midst of terror and fear, the flight of Ilan Ramon -- hero jet pilot, father of four -- was a national celebration. The son of holocaust survivors, Ramon had carried with him a drawing made by an 11-year-old child in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. He hoped to thus symbolize the triumph of life over death, of hope over tragedy. The liftoff of Columbia was covered in Israel the way Apollo 11 was here. How bitter life must seem to them. We grieve for Israel and for ourselves. We grieve because we value each human life so much. But we also know that those seven astronauts were a special group. The astronaut core is America at its best -- daring, intelligent, fit, spirited men and women imbued with a sense of wonder. They understood that their dream of space flight was inherently dangerous, but they were willing to risk death. In their pre-flight interviews, they stressed the good that space science can do for medicine and other fields on Earth. And that is certainly true. But in his or her heart, each and every astronaut must also feel that to fly into space is to be a pioneer of human history -- and therein lies the romance. Each one felt that he was part of something larger than himself, something noble and inspiring. Just a few blocks from the Air and Space Museum in Washington, where my family has watched the film "Hail Columbia" several times, there is another movie debuting at another branch of the Smithsonian Museum. It's about the Voyage of Discovery, Lewis and Clark's expedition to the Northwest Territory. That journey was a triumph of human ingenuity, perseverance, strength, and courage. Where did we get such people? The space program is a reminder that they are still among us. Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark, Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Ilan Ramon. Rest in peace.