The nature of American technology and confidence in it are now such that our own astounding achievements sometimes insulate us from the unforgiving laws of the natural world that will not go away. What brought down the Columbia over Texas was not, as our enemies in Iraq claim, an angry god, nor, as pessimists allege, nemesis for our imperial hubris — but physics itself and the fact we are quite puny humans after all. After over a decade and a half of nearly 100 routine flights, Americans had almost forgotten the near impossibility of missions that send men and women of mere flesh reentering through the sky 200,000 feet above earth’s surface, in thin metal heated to 3,000 degrees, and at Mach-18 speeds.
What is surprising is not just that it is done, but that it has been done so frequently, routinely, and professionally by those who do not just endure it but welcome the ordeal. These are uncertain times when what we once thought were natural things — like twin 1,000-foot towers projecting into the sky and manned projectiles zooming in from outer space — have suddenly been proven to be unnatural and thus dangerous after all. They most certainly are — which is all the more remarkable when we know that just as the towers will rise again, so too the shuttles will once more take off. Such are the expectations of the American people of their natural elite who do such things that most of us cannot. I don’t know whether this American frontier audacity is always sober or wise, but it is a critical part of who we are — and the world, I think, is a far better place for it.