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Two plumes — two Americas

Michael Moran: The painful road from Challenger to Columbia.
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At first, none of us believed it when our photographer burst in shouting, “The shuttle just blew up!” But he insisted, and when he would not calm down, I walked out with him to the parking lot of the Bradenton bureau of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. There in the sky above the west Florida city, tipped at an angle because of the curvature of the Earth, a plume of debris cascaded earthward, the remains of the space shuttle Challenger.

And there it was again Saturday. The plume, the debris field, the initial disbelief that melted into despair as it became clear that another crew of seven had suddenly become famous for all the wrong reasons. Within hours, the tragedy transcended the families and friends of those lost, the space agency and even America’s borders. It became, for the wider world, a reminder that even a great power is subject to the whims of fate and the fallibility of humans.

And yet, for all the similarities, the reaction to the two shuttle disasters differed in ways that reflect the enormous changes in America and the world in the intervening 17 years. Pan Am 103. The World Trade Center in 1993. Waco. Oklahoma City. And, of course, Sept. 11.

“We have a blunted affect now,” Dr. Paul Gilmore, a pain management specialist in Maryland, told me. “By that I mean, like someone who has suffered repeated blows to the head, we don’t feel the pain in quite the same way.”

This is no longer a nation that is jolted upright by tragedy. We are a nation accustomed to them, and even the most ill-informed among us understand that no two oceans any longer stand in the way.

Cold war vs. Terror war
That day so long ago in Florida kicked off months of soul-searching and anguish for an America still locked in a race with the Soviet Union. The “space race” in the classic sense of reaching the moon first ended with an American victory, but already in 1986 a new space race had begun, one that bore more relation to the arms race still raging than the scientific contest that inspired “The Right Stuff.”

The shuttle’s first “classified” payload — a U.S. military satellite for the Reagan administration’s soon-to-be announced “Strategic Defense Initiative” — was carried aloft by Columbia in 1982. When President Reagan marked that occasion , he spoke of them as he might speak of warriors: “They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”

Seen through the world’s eye, the America of 1986 is far removed. As now, in 1986 America had enemies who blamed it for most of the world’s ills. But the “enemy” of 1986 held up an alternative that had by that time thoroughly discredited itself and was only a few years away from complete collapse. Far more clearly than today, the world preferred America, even if it also feared her.

Americans did not expect the Cold War to end as suddenly as it did, but most had at least come to believe, after more than three decades of nuclear standoff, that at least “the Russians love their children, too,” as one of Sting’s more popular songs of the era put it. The paranoia of the 1950s about nuclear war had given way to a faith in the idea that, no matter how terrible the technology, humanity’s instinct for self-preservation would control it.

After 19 Islamic fanatics turned four airliners into guided missiles on Sept. 11, 2001, what can possibly be left of America’s faith in self-preservation?

Eye of beholder?
Or is it just me? It is a legitimate question. After all, in 1986, I was a 24-year-old reporter in Florida and a witness to the Challenger disaster, or at least its immediate aftermath. Age makes you cynical, almost by definition, and I have the added liability of having witnessed Sept. 11 from the banks of the Hudson River.

Still, somehow, the reaction today seems different.

Back in 1986, I wrote stories on the effects Challenger’s explosion had on people in Florida. I interviewed aging veterans of the Apollo program.

I remember vividly an interview with a local psychologist a few weeks later who reported that several of her patients had experienced new doubts about things they had once taken for granted. One had been stricken with anxieties like “Will the bread really pop up when it’s toasted, or will it fail and burn down the house?” She had lost the ability to drive, too, for fear that the line dividing her from oncoming traffic would fail as well.

Can we imagine such problems today? There doubtless will be stories about the “long-term psychological effects” of the Columbia disaster on the public. Psychologists who study group phenomena often cite disastrous events as the triggers for deep-seated problems. But the more important question to me is whether Columbia’s sad fate becomes the root cause of distress for those otherwise untouched by mental illness. Can someone outside the NASA family have gone untouched by Sept. 11 and be scarred by Columbia?

The professional observers 
One thing that remained a constant: the media. As in 1986, reporters mobilized quickly. By 9:30 AM — just a half hour after NASA lost contact with Columbia — I was at my desk covering the story. Within the hour, nearly the whole staff of NBC News, MSNBC Cable and had checked in. Our competitors were no different.

For the first few hours on Saturday, I wrote the “main” story, collating NBC News reports, wires and applying instinct to what could be gleaned from television. That’s not my gig anymore, but these are “all hands on deck” events, and they have a way of bringing you back to basics. Confirm facts, move quickly, mobilize staff, then take a breath and think of the big picture.

By early afternoon, my organization had its breath. The fact of Columbia’s loss became clear long before NASA confirmed it, and irresistibly, the story pivoted on its axis from tragedy to detective tale. I turned the main story over to our Science Editor, Alan Boyle, and tried to resume my weekend.

But I could not quite do it. I had planned to spend Saturday with a friend watching college basketball at a bar in Hoboken, N.J., just across the river from Manhattan. I drove there from work to find the place packed with men of various ages drinking beer, chatting and watching second-rate hoops on the bar’s eight televisions. Over in the corner, muted and forlorn, Dan Rather’s commentary scrolled across the bottom of one screen, ignored by everyone in the place.

I asked the bartender whether she had heard what happened.

“Yeah,” she said. “It’s so sad. A little like 9/11, but not really.”

Not at all.

Mail your thoughts to Michael Moran, request to join (or be removed from) his email notification list, and check out his daily roundup of the international press, “War of Words,” which also airs daily at 10:25 AM ET on MSNBC cable. Or read past Brave New World columns.