The explosion if the Challenger and the extinction of its crew prompt reflections, in a way that more common accidents do not, on hubris and human fallibility. People die in planes, trains, and cars every day; people die crossing the street, and climbing stairs. When, however, some marvel of technology — a state-of-the-art push on the border of the possible — fails, taking lives with it, men suddenly seem to themselves small and naked, and very rash. Earlier in this century, the crash of the Hindenburg had something of this quality. So did the sinking of the Titanic, which provoked Thomas Hardy’s grave rebuke: “In a solitude of the sea / Deep from human vanity, / And the Pride of Life that panned her, stilly couches she.”
Small minds can easily put a political spin on this. One of the dimmest jobs so far was done by James Reston, who began observing that accidents happen (true enough); when on to compare the Challenger to such failed ventures as the Maginot Line (farfetched) and Hitler’s blitzkrieg (outrageous); and concluded that Star Wars won’t work.
Most Americans, especially President Reagan, took a more serious view, engaging the doubts voiced by Hardy. They honored and mourned the astronauts, but did not pity them. None of the crew members were witless victims; they all knew the risks. The public also seemed to know why the shuttle project exists — for a host of reasons, scientific, military, and political. But also for the overriding reason, that that is the way human beings are. We are by nature as avid as we are finite. “Man is the shuttle,” wrote Henry Vaughan (unwittingly punning), “to whose winding quest / And passage through these looms / God ordered motion, but ordained no rest.” The prudent pursuit of just impulses can never be reckoned a fault, however tragic the short-run consequences.