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The flight that failed.

That flash you saw on the television screen last Tuesday was a metaphor with many meanings: loss of innocence, heroic sacrifice, national tragedy. The fire and smoke and trailing debris composed a searing electronic icon that will stay in the mind's eye of everyone now old enough to focus on the picture. For it is iconics, not economics or patriotism or sentiment, that must explain the extraordinary global lurch in reaction to the Challenger explosion: the condolences from Queen, Pope and premiers, the compulsive media coverage, the sense of collective grief. In the great scheme of things, one small tragedy for man became one big symbol for mankind.

As the trauma diminishes in the weeks ahead, another meaning will emerge from the doomsday events. The explosion that consumed Challenger should also reignite the controversy over the Star Wars nuclear defense system. President Reagan and the hi-tech freaks and hacks who are pushing the program have almost convinced the "opinion leaders" in America that is logically possible and mechanically feasible to laser and pulse our way into nuclear primary and national security. But any school-kid in New Hampshire can now see that with a misfire rate no worse than the shuttle's, the Strategic Defense Initiative would be a dud or, worse, an engine of national suicide.

S.D.I. is no more a miracle shield than the shuttle is a vehicle for space exploration. Sensors explore; astronauts tinker. One launch of the unmanned Voyager has produced more exploratory science than twenty-four shuttles. Both Star Wars and the manned shuttle program are major military projects, lucrative corporate boondoggles and serious efforts in public relations and self-promotion for NASA. The tragedy is that it cost seven lives to reveal the scam.

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Publication:The Nation
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 8, 1986
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