Cracker by Damian Christie

Trains, Planes and Space Shuttles

If there’s one thing that really pisses me off, it’s when big news happens on a Sunday.

I work, you see, at a small organisation whose responsibility it is to sit there, plugged into various talk-radio stations, listening to what’s going on. We listen on behalf of people who are:

a) too busy;
b) too important; or (more likely);
c) having too much fun leading interesting lives;

to listen to fourteen hours of Radio Pacific each day. Unfortunately I’m:

d) none of the above.

So one of the few things that gets me through talkback caller after talkback caller, a disproportionate number of whom it turns out are called Tony, is the hope of some decent breaking news. It’s a sad, scavenger existence, but it’s a living.

My addiction for hourly instalments of the latest haps is such that on the weekend, I’m quivering like a railways worker going cold turkey from the Rothmans by the time the 6pm news comes on. I’ve been known to shush friends and flatmates who are getting a bit noisy outside of their allocated ‘time for talking’, also known as the adverts. I shush them. They call me dad. It’s a thing we’ve got going.

So how annoyed was I to return home from Summer Series II (Goldenhorse, you rock) to be informed, not to see myself, but be informed by a flatmate, that the Space Shuttle Columbia had expelled itself over various parts of Texas. It didn’t happen while I was at work, so it didn’t seem quite real. Space Shuttle crash? You mean the one 17 years ago? Hang on, you’re talking about another crash? The pieces began to click together in the slow, I've-been-at-summer-series-a-bit-too-long way.

I’m about the right age to be completely into Space Shuttles. I remember being seven in 1981 when Columbia, the first of the shuttles to be built, took off for the first time. It was a big moment. I had plastic model shuttles, die-cast shuttles, posters of shuttles, a shuttle drinkbottle (but still a Cookie Bear lunchbox, mind) and a desk with a map of the solar system on it.

In 1986 when the Challenger (the second of the shuttles to be built) went up in smoke, I was 11 going on 12, a cynical pre-pubescent shit, and all I can remember really was a series of jokes going around school. You know the ones and given the circumstances, it wouldn’t seem appropriate to repeat them. If you really need to know what they were because you were on a different planet at the time, try here.

This time, the news seems even more esoteric than the last, if that’s at all possible, what with exploding spaceships being considered pretty damn esoteric where I come from. Add to that the news of some stranded astronauts (or spacemen, as I prefer) on the space station, who can’t get down unless they use some old Russian escape pods, and the whole thing has just gone straight out of The Herald and straight into a novel by Carl Sagan.

So much of our attention lately has been focused on the ground, and whose going to be invading which bit of it so that we can supposedly keep another bigger bit free, that we forget that at the same time, some small groups of mankind are still struggling to get off this hunk o’ dirt and maybe pave the way for us all to follow.

What will be interesting to watch however, and for this next bit I will firmly have my ear pressed up to the wireless: to what extent will this tragic event be used by the Washington administration to consolidate the mood of the US people into a joint outpouring of grief, similar to that felt post-9/11. Completely different events on a different scale I know, but both with loss of heroic life, national icons destroyed – and all captured on film. Key elements that can be manipulated by media and politicians alike, and again reunite the sentiment of a nation whose support had been dissipating as the march towards Baghdad continues.

I hasten to add, I’m not suggesting that there’s any suspicious connection between the two. I’ll leave that to the listeners of Radio Pacific, who were already lining up to speak as I arrived at work this morning.

“Yes, hello Pam, now did you know there was an Israeli on that space shuttle… Hmm, makes you wonder doesn’t it…”

No Tony, it doesn’t. Although as far as stoopid things I’ve heard on the radio in the past week goes, it comes a distant second to John Howard’s comments following the Sydney train derailment on Friday. A derailment which killed eight people, one more than the SS Columbia, but which is destined to disappear from memory a lot quicker. In any event, Howard’s grief-stricken comments seem to be equally poignant in both situations:

“This is the latest in a series of challenges that we have, but such a loss of life in travelling to and from work is always a particularly chilling thing.”

Yep, death-by-commuting, always been a big phobia of mine.

Finally, here’s a nice picture of Space Shuttle Columbia the way I'd like to remember it, shortly before its first launch, 12 April 1981.