Space Shuttle Columbia and U.S. Hubris
|February 8, 2003||Posted by Staff under The Progress Report|
United States Hubris
“Eagles or vultures?”
We are pleased to bring you this essay about the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, made available by http://www.YellowTimes.org
by George Lewandowski
When I paused from this morning’s C-Span coverage of the shuttle disaster long enough to check my e-mail, I found the following brief note nestled in my inbox. It was from Dr. Kim B., a life-long health care worker, and an old family friend.
She sent the following terse message (complete with her own parenthetical inserts):
“So now we can get on with mourning seven people (and I do) while we are plotting to exterminate 800,000 more (who didn’t sign up for a dangerous job consciously). ”
Kim’s obviously conflicted feelings echo my own, and I think she speaks for many anxious Americans tonight. I heard similar sentiments voiced by viewers who accepted C-Span’s invitation to call in their personal reactions to the shuttle tragedy.
It is tragic to lose accidentally seven human beings in a reach for the stars. Is it any less tragic to lose thousands in a reach for power?
Over and over today, I viewed video footage of the last moments of that engineering marvel, the Columbia. In the first few frames, it appeared as a silver streak marking America’s mastery of heaven and earth. Then, without explanation or warning, this soaring symbol of speed and power became a hideous fireball spewing bits and pieces of toxic chaos across the Texas sky. Our best technicians stood mute and helpless at their remote control consoles as their wondrous creation of handicraft and logic was brought down by forces they had not quite mastered. Like Daedalus, the mythical engineer who strapped his son Icarus to a winged contraption made of feathers and wax, we had sent seven of our best sons and daughters soaring aloft in our magnificent flying machine.
Flying high above the Texas desert at twenty times the speed of the loudest scream, something went terribly wrong.
When overconfidence took Icarus too close to the sun, the wax melted and his father’s engineering triumph came unglued.
Sailing 200,000 feet above America, our spaceship Columbia, a modern contraption of ceramic tiles and aluminum tubing began to glow white hot and shed its parts. It left a trail of broken dreams scattered from Dallas to Shreveport.
It was over in a flash. We lost five sons and two daughters.
Tonight, and tomorrow, and for days to come, America will mourn.
Among the missing astronauts was one man who grew up only a hundred miles from my hometown. His biography is full of familiar place names. I feel somehow connected to his family. We all feel connected at times like this. In such moments, we are family.
The irony for some of us, like my friend Dr. B., is that even as this tragedy was unfolding, America’s and England’s family elders were winding up a war council in which, with great confidence in the infallibility of their technology, they contemplated sending 800 fireballs in 48 hours to burn the sons and daughters of Baghdad. Ostensibly, this massive firestorm of death is intended to punish the head of Iraq’s dysfunctional family for misdeeds that we originally encouraged but have recently decided to condemn.
Is it possible for Americans to be so compartmentalized in their emotions that seven deaths by fire will trigger an appropriate human outpouring of grief, but a man-made catastrophe intended to consume thousands of human beings amid the ruins of one of the world’s oldest cities is eagerly anticipated as a cause for national pride? Can the same people who shed genuine tears for seven fallen eagles really feel nothing but contempt for whole flocks targeted for annihilation in another of America’s temper tantrums?
What kind of people are we? What kind of heart is it that grows heavy with the news of seven brave adventurers lost in an accident of experimental technology, but that swells with hubris over news of the technological prowess that will soon enable our button-pushing technicians to sit at their remote control consoles and condemn thousands of men, women and children to a painful, flame-broiled death?
What kind of people are we? What can we be thinking? What kind of mind, having just witnessed our technology’s limits in the face of great unforeseen forces, arrogantly dismisses the probability that the war we are so eager to launch might unleash forces which our technology cannot control?
Daedalus, the mythical engineer, knew the limits of his technology and the weaknesses of youth. He tried and failed to convince his son not to fly so close to the sun. Juvenile pride is an intoxicating elixir.
Perhaps, as Americans contemplate our lost comrades, we should turn our communal grief into something more morally uplifting than self-pity and a search for weaker beings upon which to inflict our frustrations.
Perhaps we should beseech our arrogant young Icarus not to fling us into the sun.
George Lewandowski is the Content Director for YellowTimes.org. He lives in the United States.
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