This USA Today assessment of TV coverage of the Columbia disaster seems about right:
- Americans have changed between Challenger and Columbia.
You could sense the shift in the national mood by the questions TV asked and answered this weekend after the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia. The tone when the Challenger exploded in 1986 was one of pained disbelief: Our technology was not supposed to fail us. Such calamities happened to other people in other places.
But Challenger and Sept. 11 have altered how we view tragedies. Once, mechanical failure horrified us. Now, TV offered it up as a comfort: As terrible as the failure might be, it was preferable to the other option that sprang to mind: a terrorist attack. That is the new nightmare, the phantom we’re afraid we’ll see every time we turn on the television.
….With the phantom put to rest, television settled into its now sadly familiar response to catastrophes. A few fragmentary, early shots of the space shuttle disintegrating were played over and over, until new shots and new angles arrived to be dropped into the rotation. Promises were quickly made not to overplay the images, and they were just as quickly broken.
And, of course, there were hours of talk. ”This is what we do in the age of television,” ABC’s Peter Jennings said. ”We sit around and talk about it, in part because it helps us understand, God willing, and it certainly helps people get through it.”
….And yet there were more noble impulses served as well. Through TV this weekend, we shared the poignancy of national loss and were reminded that such losses can be faced with dignity. ”We’ll find the cause, we’ll fix it, and we’ll move on,” said NASA’s Capt. Bill Readdy, a simple, eloquent expression of the determination that drives the space program.
As with Challenger, the destruction of Columbia caught us unaware, but it did not catch us or television equally unprepared. We were just as saddened by the loss. But we were not as shocked as we once might have been.
Our world has changed.
I’m not sure why we ever thought our technology was infallible or that we were invulnerable to attack, but now we know otherwise. We know that catastrophic failure is just a matter of statistics: if you do something dangerous enough times, something will go wrong and people will be killed. This is a very sad and humbling realization.
I am reminded of an article by William Langewiesche in the Atlantic from ’98 examining the lessons of the ValuJet crash:
- Like NASA before the Challenger accident, the FAA needed to listen to the opinions and worries of its own lower-level employees. But there are limits to all this, too. When, at a post-crash press conference in Miami, a reporter asked Robert Francis, of the NTSB, “Shouldn’t the government protect us against this kind of thing?” the best answer would have been “It cannot, and never will.”
….It would be wrong to conclude that we should join the alarmists in their prophesies of doom. Flying will remain safe, and for conventional reasons, including the admirable reaction we have seen to the ValuJet crash. But it should also be clear that there are structural limits to flight safety, and that any dream of a zero-accident future is probably about as realistic as the old ValuJet promise to put safety first. If that is true, we had better get used to it. Conventional accidents — those I call procedural or engineered — will submit to our solutions, but as air travel continues to expand, we can expect capricious system accidents to blossom. Understanding why might keep us from making the system even more complex, and therefore perhaps more dangerous, too.
As space flight becomes nearly as routine air travel, so comes the other part of the “routine: accidents.