Space Shuttle Blues
Our deepest sympathies go out to the family
and friends of the Astronauts of the Space Shuttle Columbia, to
the Husbands, McCools, Andersons, Browns, Chawlas, Clarks, and Ramons.
This is a tragic thing to have happened. Although, what a way to
go. The rest of us can look forward to choking on bread, car accidents,
cancer, heart disease, homicide. If you have to go, (and you do
- just wait and see), that is right up there at the top of the list
of great ways to exit this world. The best view in the house, of
the house- before going.
None of this gives the grieving any comfort whatsoever.
Ajaban wants to respond to one soundbite that came in over the
news, reports that some fellow in Iraqi office said this is a Sign.
Retribution. Ha ha. And then as the anchor talked on, we saw that
shadowy, ghostlike satellite/sortie/gulf war-video-game footage
being shown of the Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor
in Iraq in 1981. Apparently the Israeli Astronaut, Ramon was in
the group of planes that bombed the reactor. Hence the suggestion
that this is divine act of vengeance on behalf of Iraq or something.
Well, sure, that's one way to look at this. The Divine, being verbally
inarticulate, but cosmically and weather-expressively oriented,
does churn out these strange statements now and again. On the other
hand, what was that soundbite about NASA expecting a tragic accident
every 88 flights? A grim statistic that lessens the argument of
divine influence. Although the superstitious can still ask "of
all probable moments, why this moment?" The science of probability
and statistics don't alleviate superstition. You can keep inferring
Meaning at the intersection of superstition and probability.
Ajaban, of course, per its policy, will neither confirm nor deny
either divine intervention or the utter mindless meaninglessness
of the universe. Instead, we just operate as if both could be true,
and then see which view gives us a better deal before rendering
an opinion (the quality of the deal may depend on your perspective,
which, no doubt, varies) Anyway, each perspective comes with pluses
and minuses. In this case, we've got a "this is a sign! Vengeance!"
possibiltiy, and, alternatively, "it's no sign. Just happened.
Completely meaningless thing that happens in our uncaring universe."
If we take the second approach - the uncaring universe "this
was an accident" tack, the deal is that we feel sad and alone
and vulnerable, but spend our energy trying to learn from the experience,
putting together all the pieces, to see how best to beat the odds
the next time. This is pretty much what officials are doing now.
Sifting through the debris, going over the data, the footage, every
soundbite. And lessons will be learned. We just keep improving.
We just keep getting back up on the horse. But the horse keeps tossing
and it's always a matter of time. Yes, this is no sign, it is a
reminder rendered by the laws of physics in the form of accidents.
A reminder that you can never turn your back on the sea. As Herman
Melville says in "Moby Dick":
"...though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita,
so that Columbus sailed over numberless unknown worlds to discover
his one superficial western one; though, by vast odds, the most
terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially and indiscriminately
befallen tens and hundreds of thousands of those who have gone
upon the waters; though but a moment's consideration will teach,
that however baby man may brag of his science and skill, and however
much, in a flattering future, that science and skill may augment;
yet for ever and for ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will
insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he
can make; nevertheless, by the continual repetition of these very
impressions, man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of
the sea which aboriginally belongs to it."
Substitute "space" for "sea" and there you
have it. The awe in the awful. Insult and murder. Man against cold
space and raging sea.
So I went to the Titanic exhibit at the Museum
of Science and Industry. Great exhibit. As with the Holocaust
Museum, you get a ticket to go into the exhibition which identifies
you as one of the people who lived the actual experience. The ticket
has the name and some details of a passenger or crewmember of the
Titanic. At the end of the maze of artifacts and simulations, you
see the list of survivors and deceased. You look at your card and
try to find your alter ego - did he/she/you make it? Or did you
all freeze and sink into the deep? Highly recommended. You'll see
actual pieces from the Titanic preserved and exhumed for your curiosity.
You'll walk through replicas of rooms and hallways and feel like
you're on the ship itself, especially when you step "out"
onto the cool deck at "night" (A fine illusion. AC and
a cold breeze in a dark space, you go to the railing and see the
water lapping below, gaze out into the re-created sky painted with
the stars on the port bow of the ship as they were configured the
night of the iceberg encounter - what a lovingly detailed simulation).
Back inside, you get to the crash. Details of the impending tragedy.
Stories of people who were saved, people who died, people who had
premonitions, families who were torn apart, women who refused to
be saved and chose to drown with their men (not the title of a self-help
book). At some point, they have placed a huge block of ice for the
masses to lay their hands on to see how long they can hold it there.
The idea is that the the water for our unfortunate passengers, being
salt water, was actually colder than ice. It's the anti-freeze effect.
Chilling. (Sorry, Gallows bad-pun humor.)
This isn't the bath toy.
It's the Titanic-Bot.
For the bath toy, you have to go to the Museum. They don't
sell it in the online store. I'll keep you posted if it
But then, it's all over and we arrive at the gift shop for the
final process of erasing the sense of the full awfulness of the
tragedy. To commemorate this loss of my sense of awfulness, I purchased
a Titanic bath toy. This foot long replica floats in the bathtub
with you, keeping you company as you splash and sing. Then, when
it hits the "iceberg" (e.g. when you pull this lever back
and open up a hole where the iceberg pierced the hull) water starts
to fill the front chambers. The front part sinks and breaks off.
The back smashes back down, then fills, flips up and goes straight
down, just like in the movie. This toy is a marvel of engineering.
Someone spent a long time designing it and getting the mechanics
right. Way cool.
Some of you are horrified. Does this toy not fill the children
taking the bath with fear? I tested it on some children. They didn't
seem to have any fear. They were enchanted with the engineering.
This is a terrifying sign that amoral geeks shall inherit the earth
and send heroes out in their contraptions as guinea pigs. Maybe
children just don't naturally have an aboriginal sense of the awfulness
of such tragedy. (Heck, maybe they are reincarnations of the drowned
and the whole thing is a nostalgic reminiscence for them). Perhaps
they aboriginally get that it's important for them to know that
things can go terribly wrong. In point of fact the Titanic tragedy
led to a lot of new safety measures for ocean travel. More of those
pesky "lessons learned." And playing with the toy also
has a positive psychological affect because understanding how it
works, you feel empowered, and also, in a godlike manner, you can
restore the ship each time after it sinks. The past is undone and
So I only mention this because I had my Titanic toy but I had not
assembled it yet. And then, there went the Space Shuttle. Later
that day, I found myself absently opening up the box and assembling
the Titanic. A superstitious gesture of hope? How does this mechanism
work? Where do these tiny inadequate white plastic lifeboat replicas
fit? Appropriate busy work for this day. Better than worry beads.
The maiden voyage of this toy. Background voices saying "Be
Turning away from this pathetic bath toy security object, let's
look at the "it's a sign" approach. Was this tragedy a
deliberate communication from...from...that inscrutable communicator
up yonder? Was it a sign that says "No trespassing on nukes?"
But Iraq. Yes. There was Col. Ramon, the first Israeli Astronaut,
on the shuttle, and of all maiden voyages for people with symbolic
baggage attached to their identity, the shuttle chose this time
to blow up. What was some of the baggage? Well The Colonel, in his
time with the Israeli air force, has dropping bombs on an Iraqi
nuclear reactor on his resume. Hence the speculation. The mission
in Iraq, what was the goal? A pre-emptive strike against Iraq to
disable it's nuclear capability. And now what is George Bush doing?
He's preparing a pre-emptive strike against Iraq to disable it's
nuclear, chemical and biological capability. So to the untrained
eye, it could appear that the divine forces are saying don't do
that pre-emptive strike, because the heavens will ultimately be
Of course, rationally, the heavens turned on the fellow 22 years
after the mission, during a high risk activity, but still, it has
very interesting symbolic value right now. Now I'm all against "pre-emptive"
wars. Ridiculous. But I think the reasons for and against war should
be based on something other than "signs from the heavens".
Not least because it's mean to take a person's death and gloat about
it being a sign.
And so I want to just point out a few things about the Osirak attack
which has been lost on some people that I've had this discussion
with. It happened while Iran and Iraq were at war. A year into this
war, Israel sent out pilots to bomb the reactor. Yes, this is an
act of war. If Canada were to send out planes to drop bombs on some
high tech facility in Colorado, we here in the US would consider
it an act of war. But whatever Israel's motivation/self-interest/strategy/appropriateness-vis-a-vis-the-rules-of-war
was, I just want to point out that in this particular instance it
was effectively working on behalf of Iran, the bastion of Muslim
Checking out the analysis
of the Iran-Iraq War (And please do check this out. Get a sense
of the real cost of war based on personal miscalculation and an
exaggerated sense of vulnerability. And here is documentation about
Sadaam's use of chemical weapons. Which begs the question, why go
to war on the whole country at all? Can't the leader just be tried
on grounds of these documented human rights violations from the
use of chemical weapons (and the foreign/western corporations that
enabled him)? We only want the one guy. This is like blowing up
the baby with the bathwater. Did we only just now ban these weapons?
Absurd approaches to problem-solving. A love of overkill. Who's
in charge?) Yes, both my countries seem to always be fighting Iraq,
at great cost. Why, I don't know. So much blood and life lost to
this conflict. So many real people dead or maimed. Emotional scars.
Bitter regret. And for what? "At the end, virtually none of
the issues which are usually blamed for the war had been resolved.
When it was over, the conditions which existed at the beginning
of the war remained virtually unchanged..." Just another example
of the loss of that sense of the full awfulness phenomenon. Anyway,
the bare stats on the reactors is:
"Iran launched an unsuccessful attack on the Iraqi Osirak
nuclear reactor on 30 September 1980. On 07 June 1981 Israel initiated
an air attack on the same Iraqi Osirak reactor, destroying it.
Iraq launched seven air attacks on the Iranian nuclear reactor
at Bushehr between 1984 and 1988 during the Iran-Iraq War, ultimately
destroying the facility."
So there seems to be a lot of reactor bombing going on. And the
Ayatollahs were coincidentally working to the same purpose as Israel
for the Osirak reactor job, so their deities must have been aligned
at the time. Therefore, I don't think the heavens were stacked against
the Israeli Astronaut for this reason. I can't vouch for other reasons
and I don't know about the rest of the crew. Who knows which of
them incurred the wrath of the...wrathful one.
Well, this is all somber and depressing. Which reminds me, the
last time a shuttle met with disaster I was a freshman in college.
I decided Folklore was something I should pursue. So I signed up
for the only available class, "Folklore of the Short, Humorous
Narrative." It was a graduate level course, I was lucky to
get in, and intimidated by the tought of grad students and course
difficulty. Until the first day of class when I discovered that
a "short, humorous narrative", it turns out, is a joke.
I think the point of the class was to figure out why people told
jokes and how they used them. Apparently to it's bring to light
things that are too painful to talk about. "Other than that,
Mrs. Kennedy, how was the parade?" Auschwitz jokes "How
many people can you fit in a volkswagen? Two in front, two in back
and six million in the ashtray", and NASA jokes, as Challenger
had met with its disaster. We were to keep track of joke cycles
around themes and one woman collected Space Shuttle Challenger jokes.
What does NASA stand for? Need another seven astronauts. Why was
Christy McCaullife a bad teacher? She blew up in front of her students.
And so on. This wasn't just an exercise in collecting jokes of course.
No, we had to analyze. Who's telling them, what are they feeling,
what is the anxiety, what is the hope, etc. And so it took on some
profound tones. What does NASA stand for? Not just the acronym,
but the institution? It stands for the highest of human endeavors.
This is the organization that uses all that scary rocket science
- the stuff that others seem to want to use for pulverizing, intimidating
and otherwise interfering with the democracy and well-being of other
people - for use in taking humanity to the greatest heights.
And what's really depressing right now is that those good human
aspirations have been dealt a vicious blow with this tragic event,
while base and destructive human aspirations for reckless war and
dominance are on the rise. What does NASA stand for? What do we
stand for? What are we about? How can we reach those heights?
We copy your venting...
Ah but man's
reach should exceed his grasp, else what is heaven for?"
- Robert Browning