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Published: Monday, 2/3/2003

Tragedy, yes. But sorrowful America will heal and soar

So here we are again: candles, homemade cards, and teddy bears bunched together at a public place, spontaneous expressions of grief.

This time the makeshift shrine lies at the entrance to the Johnson Space Center, in Houston, where CNN cameras recorded the sorrowful offerings delivered by sorrow-struck people.

Yes, it's come to this again - American flags jammed into chain-link fences.

Didn't we just see these images the other day? Weren't we just recently transfixed before our televisions? And don't we still carry around with us some hard-to-describe, heavy sensation deep in our hearts?

The tragedy of Columbia occurs at a national emotional crossroads.

We are moving forward from a still-painful Sept. 11, yes. But we seem also to be headed into a controversial war which - as wars always do, no matter the outcome - promises to deliver still more pain to this and other nations.

The scab is not yet off before we find ourselves bracing against the possibility of another wound. And then from 40 miles up into the sky falls an unexpected national disaster from clear out of the blue.

Not that everyone down here on Earth even knew the Columbia was up there because - face it - space just isn't what it used to be.

Teachers no longer set aside lesson plans to let the students watch televised history. Then again, TV no longer broadcasts liftoffs. Newspapers no longer set aside space for shuttle missions.

It's too routine now.

Of course, as we've been told repeatedly these last two days, shuttle crews know the risks. One former astronaut explained that most of their training revolves around response to the unexpected. Astronauts, it seems, always keep the potential danger in mind.

It's just the rest of us who tend to forget.

Seventeen years ago, the image on our television screen was vertical. We saw Challenger blasting off up into the sky, then blast apart. Saturday, our TV image was horizontal: that blazing, cometlike fireball that streaked from west to east.

Seventeen years ago we spoke of O-rings. This time we may or may not wind up focusing on tiles.

Saturday, the major networks and cable outlets devoted hours to the tragedy. Yesterday, NASA's late-afternoon briefing competed against the usual Sunday TV fare of football, hockey, and golf.

One of the CNN crawls yesterday read: “NASA: Don't sell debris on eBay.” That some enterprising ghouls attempted this is nearly as horrifying as the disaster itself.

But this business of Americans taking for granted all our efforts in space?

I'm not sure that's such a bad thing.

We take for granted, after all, that which we can count on.

And what is more uniquely American than space exploration? What better symbolizes the American coupling of detailed perseverance with soaring imagination?

Flags around the country are flying at half-staff now.

But we know the time will come soon enough to raise them high once more.

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