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Risk and the spirit of discovery

02/04/03 12:00AM By David Moats
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(Host) Commentator David Moats reflects on the Shuttle disaster and the spirit of discovery.

(Moats) The daring of astronauts has always been beyond my imagination. I'm the kind of person, when the plane takes off, I'm clutching the arm rests and murmuring the names of my kids. As the earth recedes all I can think of is that there's an awful lot of air between me and it.

I have some home movie footage of my father back in 1940, flying a tiny little plane back and forth up above my grandfather's movie camera. That was just 13 years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and flying was an adventure. It takes a different frame of mind than mine to enjoy that kind of adventure.

These speculations come to me, of course, as I listen to the news about the shuttle disaster and consider the combination of coolness and passion that seems to characterize our space program. There's gotta be passion. Why else would our astronauts consider putting themselves atop a blazing inferno of rocket fuel and letting themselves be hurled into space? They have to love it. But the coolness of the astronauts seems quintessentially American. The space program is a landmark of engineering, science and the can-do spirit. Even so, the men and women of the space program are so given to understatement that when Neil Armstrong got to the moon, he tried to be grandiose and it didn't work.

The best quotes from astronauts are the simplest. "The Eagle has landed." "Houston, we have a problem."

We had a problem on Saturday. It was a highly visible, hard-to-imagine and tragic problem. The NASA spokesmen have that quiet, reasonable manner that I associate with my father. He was an engineer, though he had nothing to do with space, and he never flew airplanes after his youthful adventures in 1940. But he had that kind of optimism you saw in the NASA people who looked at the disaster in front of them and said in matter of fact fashion that they had a problem and they were going to fix it.

I'm not one who believes human beings will ever conquer space, if it's possible to use such a term. People are little. Space is big. But we can conquer fear and ignorance. We can conquer complacency and lethargy. It seems to me that's what the space program has always been about. All those old cliches about the spirit of discovery are true. If we're not curious about our world, including the world out there in space, then there's something wrong with us.

But discovery has its risks. Astronauts have that cool and rational way of talking about risk, but the risk is real. We saw that on Saturday. Now there are a lot of questions about what went wrong. Was it the tiles? Was it the wheel well? They'll figure it out. What's most remarkable is that people are flying into space at all. I thought my father was brave.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats is the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing.

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