February 22, 2003
By Rosemary and Walter Brasch
happened so quickly - America gained heroes and lost bright,
inquisitive, and patriotic men and women. Family members in
just an instant plummeted from anticipation to agony. Spouses
and children now planned memorial services. America lost 11
Eleven? Weren't there only seven? There were seven astronauts,
but there were also four other American lives lost. You may
not remember. Or perhaps you didn't hear about them.
Seven died aboard the Columbia. On Thursday, Jan. 23, little
more than a week earlier, four American soldiers on a training
mission were killed in Afghanistan when their MH-60 Black
Hawk helicopter crashed. The Central Command said it was an
accident, that there was no indication of hostile fire. The
wire services sent out short articles, most under 600 words.
The nation's newspapers that did run the story often cut it,
some to a paragraph on an inside page. The television networks
kept the story to under 90 seconds then moved to other stories.
In contrast, the nation's television and radio networks aired
almost continuous coverage of the Columbia tragedy, from shortly
before 9:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 1, to late afternoon. "Specials"
and additional "news breaks" added to their coverage. The
nation's Sunday newspapers splashed the story, with photos
of the debris and of the seven astronauts, over their front
pages and several inside pages. The major news magazines ran
cover stories and dozens of color photos inside. Several state
and federal agencies were mobilized not just to conduct the
search- and-recovery operation and to initiate investigations
into the causes, but also to assist the media and the people
to better understand what happened and why.
When Apollo 1 exploded on its platform, Jan. 27, 1967, and
three astronauts died, the nation mourned its first space
tragedy. When an oxygen tank exploded on Apollo 13, in April
1970, and it appeared that the crippled space craft might
never return to earth, the media gave the story unprecedented
coverage. When Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off,
Jan. 20, 1986, and seven astronauts including a civilian school
teacher died, the media pre-empted almost all other programs
and coverage for most of the day to report the tragedy, and
show endless re-runs of the actual explosion.
The loss of these young, vibrant lives is tragic. And so
Oct. 19, 2001, two Army rangers killed when their
Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Pakistan.
Jan. 9, 2002, nine Marines killed when their KC-130
refueling tanker exploded in Pakistan.
Jan. 20, 2002, two Marines killed and five injured
when their CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter crashed.
March 4, 2002, seven soldiers killed and 11 wounded
during a military offensive against the Taliban.
Dec. 21, 2002, a 22-year-old Army sergeant killed
by a sniper near the border with Pakistan.
In slightly more than a year since American forces went into
Afghanistan, there have been six aircraft crashes, none from
hostile fire. There have been 17 deaths from accidents and
eight from hostile fire, and at least two dozen injured.
Within three hours of having been notified of the Columbia
disaster, the President had returned to Washington from his
weekend vacation at Camp David, Maryland. He made a nationally-
television statement of condolence, ordered the flags to half-
staff, and personally talked with the families of six of the
astronauts. Before the afternoon ended, politicians and administration
officials were questioning the space program's cost against
its value; NASA suspended the shuttle program, pending investigation
of the Columbia crash.
For those killed in the Afghanistan war, no flags were ordered
to half-staff. The President, for all we know, did not personally
call the families of each victim. There was no national week
of mourning, nor did the major news magazines run cover stories
about the deaths. Certainly cost vs. value wasn't debated,
nor was the war halted. The only coverage beyond wire stories
was by hometown newspapers which ran obits and day-of- the-funeral
The accidental crashes of five helicopters and a refueling
tanker are no different from the accidental explosion of the
space shuttle with its seven deaths. The death of combat soldiers
is no different nor any less tragic than the death of seven
highly-trained astronauts. Yet, our nation doesn't mourn,
our Congress doesn't question, and our wars don't cease. To
question the inequalities in the nation's interest and the
media's coverage does not diminish the lives of our fallen
astronauts. But to not question the safety, cost, and need,
and to willingly accept death in war without vigorously questioning
the war itself, lessens the value of each military life.
Perhaps, if the people would have been as upset about the
deaths of the 17 killed in aircraft and helicopter accidents,
and were exposed to as much media coverage as for the Columbia
tragedy, maybe we could force this administration to try everything
it could before it decided to send 250,000 to 300,000 Americans
into war where there is likely to be far more than seven deaths.
Rosemary Brasch is a national disaster family services specialist
for the Red Cross and a labor consultant. Walter Brasch is
professor of journalism and syndicated columnist. His current
book is "The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era."
You may contact the Brasches at firstname.lastname@example.org
or through www.walterbrasch.com.