Space Shuttle Crash as Entertainment

The space shuttle Columbia is 12 minutes late, so the CBS correspondent reports seriously from Florida. He explains, with the aid of a model, how the shuttle enters the atmosphere at a very particular angle and that a couple of degrees this way or that would spell, well, disaster. It is a little after 9am and none of the TV people will come out with it. The space expert with the toy shuttle insists that there is no going back, that the vehicle resembles a gliding brick and that 12 minutes late, once it enters the atmosphere, means never. The early morning Saturday anchor man, who on a normal shift would be introducing children’s cartoons about now, resembles someone packing a knife who has just realized he’s in the middle of a gunfight. Painfully overwhelmed he repeatedly gaffes the gliding brick metaphor. Our man in Houston corrects him. ‘Not a floating brick, a gliding brick.’ In the background the NASA announcer directs the Houston personnel to lockdown and save all the info on their computers. It seems the mission is over.

Dan Rather appears wearing a distinctly black suit. We run through the gliding brick story again and the old hand assumes a September 11th tone. He has Buzz Aldren on the line, Dan presses him for escape capsules and exit strategies. Buzz, not shy about mentioning his aerospace company, dismisses all hope but promotes his own design for just such a capsule which he suggests is the only thing that might have saved the crew. Rather, teary eyed, prefers not to register Aldren’s pessimism and continues with talk of parachutes and pressure suits. But the game is up when the home video starts rolling, explosions and disintegration as one shuttle becomes 2, 3 and so on. It’s clear that as a younger man Rather dreamt of becoming an astronaut and is deeply affected by the disaster, cracking as he repeats in a voice brittle with sorrow and disbelief, `Brave astronauts. Brave, Brave astronauts’. Most other announcers settle for grace under pressure, solemnity and the rapid decent into patriotism. Dan is gray faced when recalling JFK’s catch up to the Soviets and somber when grilling a space policy expert as to whether this will represent a real setback to putting an American on Mars.

* Like so many of us I always dreamed of seeing an American on Mars someday, Is that dream dead now?

* For various reasons, the cost of a manned flight, the lift necessary for a life support system of that duration, the duration itself, that was just never in the offing.

* Well, I for one will continue to dream of that day.

While NASA issue announcements warning the public not to touch debris from the space ship they have still not informed us that the Columbia is lost. It is 11am by the time they lower the flag at the landing site to half-mast by which time tv footage of wreckage strewn across the South East is going around the world. Yet NASA have still made no reference to the Columbia which has yet to arrive. Hours earlier the families of the astronauts, excitedly gathered by the runway, had been whisked to ‘a secure location’.

Back on CBS Rather, a hint of vitriol and steel in his eye, reports that in Baghdad they are calling this Allah’s revenge on America. He promptly introduces the Israeli ambassador, Danny Ayalon. One of the doomed astronauts was an Israeli air force pilot, a veteran of the ’73 war, the invasion of Lebanon , part of the unit that bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility in the early 80’s and the first Israeli in space. The ambassador recalls that the international community was unhappy about the Iraqi business at the time, though it is now regarded as somewhat avant-garde. The moment passes. For some reason he continues, “when you look at the Intifada and see the bodies strewn across the streets..” before going on to observe, “two nations, free and democratic, exploring the frontier” Rather is nodding solemnly as the ambassador informs us that the fallen war hero “carried a picture by a little boy who died in the Nazi concentration camps.”

The ambassador disappears and Rather announces that he has in his hand the last exchange between the Columbia and Houston. After a pause he begins, “Columbia Houston Columbia Houston and then just before the communications went down a word beginning with, Bla-a”. Horrifying stuff.

President Bush has returned from Camp David to the White House on learning the news. He addresses the nation. The space program will continue, the dead are heroes and by way of reminder, “It is easy to underestimate the dangers of travel by rocket”. Then, perhaps subconsciously responding to the Baghdad admonitions he adds that, “the same creator who named the stars knows the names of the 7 souls.”

Having postponed their press conference already NASA finally meets the press at 2pm, Dan Rather is understanding and by implication, so must we be. Alas the 2pm conference is question free, understandable considering the nations loss. The man from NASA is properly quavering, and succeeds admirably in disciplining the 5th estate to keep inquiries intended for the press conference later in the day (this one with questions) in tune with the emotional requirements of the ‘tragedy’, initially referred to as the ‘problem’.

Dan Rather is a little jollier back in the studio. He happily reports that FEMA and the office of Homeland Security are involved in securing the South East and the cavalry are to be dispatched from Fort Hood to assist in gathering the parts that remain of the Columbia. Pictures of cop cars triangled with crime scene tape between them sealing off a small piece of metal on a lonely highway make us all feel better. No doubt there are those who would offer parts for sale on eBay were it not for Ridge, FEMA, the cavalry and the highway patrol. We also learn that the ever suspect Cheney was bird hunting in Texas when the Columbia went down, in Texas. This revelation is like the first time I heard George Bush senior was in Dallas the day Kennedy died.

Excitement builds as the NASA press conference with questions approaches. Rather is not doing much to pump the audience but citizens everywhere look forward to NASA defending the dismal safety record of the Shuttle. Of the 6 manufactured 2 (33%) have crashed and burned claiming 14 heroes, the first woman and Israeli in space among them. Put another way, of the 113 flights undertaken 2 have ended in disaster, an operational record announcing an almost 2% failure rate. NASA uses the shuttle as a PR vehicle. Most if not all of the operations carried out could be accomplished splendidly by robots, but the spectacular publicity of John Glenn, school teachers, African Americans and Israelis in space is far more sexy than the reality, which is the installation and maintenance of TV satellites and GPS systems for yuppies driving humvies. Considering the shuttle is more famous for its Ozone research than its Ozone depletion, inevitably someone will challenge the sense of this multi billion dollar Ozone/astronaut killer at the press conference with serious questions. For the journalists present their colleague Peter Bunyard has already crunched the numbers in the Ecologist magazine.

“Every Space Shuttle flight discharges ten or more tonnes of hydrogen, which, at an altitude of 300 kilometers, forms a cloud that can spread horizontally over several thousand kilometers and hydrogen, like chlorine, is a destroyer of ozone.”

The time come the man from NASA presents himself to the assembled, the first question is from a network lady. “For those who don’t live around here, in this area, can you tell us what this has meant to this close knit community around the shuttle?” The man from NASA takes it pretty well, and though shaken, answers the question to polite uhms and ahs from the congregation. Next up a burly tough from another network. “Does the training go on?” The man from NASA begins this one with a childhood story about himself and one of the fallen. They went to the same school and, though some years apart, had that in common. This is degenerating from tragedy to farce with the multi billion (tax) dollar corporation literally dancing on the graves of the dead, applauded by the network functionaries. His response is resolute in its cynicism, “We’ll get together, hug each other, comfort each other, help each other and yes, we’ll go on”.

JAMES DAVIS was born in Ireland, lives in New York, where he makes films. He can be reached at: