It happened so quickly–America gained heroes and lost bright, inquisitive, and patriotic men and women. Family members in just an instant plummeted from anticipation to agony. Spouses and children now planned memorial services. America lost 11 souls.
Eleven? Weren’t there only seven? There were seven astronauts, but there were also four other American lives lost. You may not remember. Or perhaps you didn’t hear about them. Seven died aboard the Columbia. On Thursday, Jan. 23, little more than a week earlier, four American soldiers on a training mission were killed in Afghanistan when their MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter crashed. The Central Command said it was an accident, that there was no indication of hostile fire. The wire services sent out short articles, most under 600 words. The nation’s newspapers that did run the story often cut it, some to a paragraph on an inside page. The television networks kept the story to under 90 seconds then moved to other stories.
In contrast, the nation’s television and radio networks aired almost continuous coverage of the Columbia tragedy, from shortly before 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 1, to late afternoon. “Specials” and additional “news breaks” added to their coverage. The nation’s Sunday newspapers splashed the story, with photos of the debris and of the seven astronauts, over their front pages and several inside pages. The major news magazines ran cover stories and dozens of color photos inside. Several state and federal agencies were mobilized not just to conduct the search- and-recovery operation and to initiate investigations into the causes, but also to assist the media and the people to better understand what happened and why.
When Apollo 1 exploded on its platform, Jan. 27, 1967, and three astronauts died, the nation mourned its first space tragedy. When an oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13, in April 1970, and it appeared that the crippled space craft might never return to earth, the media gave the story unprecedented coverage. When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, Jan. 20, 1986, and seven astronauts including a civilian school teacher died, the media pre-empted almost all other programs and coverage for most of the day to report the tragedy, and show endless re- runs of the actual explosion.
The loss of these young, vibrant lives is tragic. And so are these:
–Oct. 19, 2001, two Army rangers killed when their Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan.
— Jan. 9, 2002, nine Marines killed when their KC-130 refueling tanker exploded in Pakistan.
–Jan. 20, 2002, two Marines killed and five injured when their CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed.
–March 4, 2002, seven soldiers killed and 11 wounded during a military offensive against the Taliban.
–Dec. 21, 2002, a 22-year-old Army sergeant killed by a sniper near the border with Pakistan.
In slightly more than a year since American forces went into Afghanistan, there have been six aircraft crashes, none from hostile fire. There have been 17 deaths from accidents and eight from hostile fire, and at least two dozen injured.
Within three hours of having been notified of the Columbia disaster, the President had returned to Washington from his weekend vacation at Camp David, Maryland. He made a nationally- television statement of condolence, ordered the flags to half- staff, and personally talked with the families of six of the astronauts. Before the afternoon ended, politicians and administration officials were questioning the space program’s cost against its value; NASA suspended the shuttle program, pending investigation of the Columbia crash.
For those killed in the Afghanistan war, no flags were ordered to half-staff. The President, for all we know, did not personally call the families of each victim. Certainly cost vs. value wasn’t debated, nor was the war halted. The only coverage beyond wire stories was by hometown newspapers which ran obits and day-of-the-funeral features. The accidental crashes of five helicopters and a refueling tanker are no different from the accidental explosion of the space shuttle with its seven deaths. The death of combat soldiers is no different nor any less tragic than the death of seven highly-trained astronauts. Yet, our nation doesn’t mourn, our Congress doesn’t question, and our wars don’t cease. To question the inequalities in the nation’s interest and the media’s coverage does not diminish the lives of our fallen astronauts. But to not question the safety, cost, and need, and to willingly accept death in war without vigorously questioning the war itself, lessens the value of each military life.
Perhaps, if the people would have been as upset about the deaths of the 17 killed in aircraft and helicopter accidents, and were exposed to as much media coverage as for the Columbia tragedy, maybe we could force this administration to try everything it could before it decided to send 250,000 to 300,000 Americans into war where there is likely to be far more than seven deaths.
Rosemary Brasch is a national disaster family services specialist for the Red Cross and a labor consultant. Walter Brasch is professor of journalism and syndicated columnist. His current book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. Visit his web-site www.walterbrasch.com.
The Brasches can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org