I turned on the TV sometime after 11 a.m. Saturday. From the disjointed blurbs of the videotape, I first thought Wolf Blitzer and Lou Dobbs had been killed. There'd been a crash. In Texas. A video image of what looked like a meteorite didn't help.

The somber tone of the broadcasters kept me and my 10-year-old son from leaving the TV right then. Newscasters were talking in national-tragedy voices. Jeez, maybe Wolf was dead.

Then an anchor said something about something falling from "the heavens." This was more serious. TV guys only get poetic about the sky when an American object fails to fly through it. I knew then that several people were dead, and I knew it probably involved either Air Force One or NASA.

A few moments later I learned the space shuttle Columbia had blown up.

My son and I watched for 15 minutes. At commercial, my son got up and told me he was going to our other TV to play Halo, which is an X-Box game involving Marine-like earth soldiers trying to save humanity by invading and destroying an alien space station that is shaped like a halo, much like the space station depicted in the Stanley Kubrick film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Thing is, I didn't know Columbia was in space until newscasters identified what looked like the contrails of the Air Force Thunderbirds to, in fact, be numerous smoke trails from one space shuttle.

I called my wife at a festival in Chandler. She was surprised that a shuttle had blown up. When she told a friend standing next to her, the friend said, "Oh yeah, that happened at 7 a.m."

Huh?! Four hours ago? The friend hadn't happened to mention to her in all that time that the space shuttle Columbia had blown up? And you hadn't overheard anything about it at a large civic event?

But I'd been in the same darkness. No family member had called me. No neighbor had mentioned it as they made small talk in our front yard. I had been in three stores between 8 and 10 a.m. and heard nothing.

This long morning of not knowing, then not caring, tipped me off to something.

The explosion of Columbia was not a real national tragedy. It was actually like the crash of a small plane, except that people called astronauts were on board.

I remember when a manned space flight was a big deal. I was a NASA junkie as a kid. My uncle, who'd led several shuttle design programs in the 1970s and 1980s, would send me photos and schematics for a new craft NASA would soon be sending up. It looked like a plane built to crash. But he said this thing could glide in from space and then return to space.

A shuttle bus to space. It was a grand beginning.

Columbia was to take our manifest destiny deeper into space. It was a creative application of state-of-the-art technologies in the era of Space Invaders.

And Columbia worked for a long time before it didn't work Saturday morning.

And by the time it blew up, I didn't even realize the beater was still being flown. And at the time it blew up, I realized I didn't really care.

So detached of me. Seven people, seven cherished fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, had just been killed.

I was sad. But I was sad like I'm sad when I find out about that small plane in Alberta. Or that those four soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in Georgia. Eight commuters killed in a pileup on an icy interstate. A family of four killed by an angry ex-boyfriend.

Sigh . . . within an hour, whatever sadness I'd felt turned to ghoulish TV watching.

Live to east Texas.

Okay, why do rural Texans always have to live up to their stereotype? Locals are mulling over searing space junk. Reports flow in of guys burned because they touched the searing space junk.

Don't touch the searing metal, officials scolded like nannies.

Reports flow in of guys selling space junk on eBay. The feds scold the sellers and threaten prosecution.

So quickly a Bad American issue again.

But what's so wrong with a little capitalism here? These blue-collar space-junk junkies aren't going to see any benefits from Bush's stock dividends tax break. It was like Barry Bonds spent Saturday blasting home run balls into the boonies.

I began doing redneck voice-overs as I watched the human cast of King of the Hill hover over searing space junk.

"Sheeeiit. What da hell is that red-hot thingamajig thar?"

"I dunno. But I'll give yee a Lone Star iffin ya put it up yer butt."


Then another commercial.

Then self-loathing. Sick bastard. Where had my sense of reverence gone?

I'd had it back when Challenger blew up. Finally, that evening, the local angle.

Apparently a few of the astronauts had spent some time in the Valley. A few had relatives here. Also, I learned from every weekend crew that a few companies here had built some of the parts that blew up in the "Tragedy in the Sky."

I felt evil in my desire to want to club the reporters with space junk.

This was media hype. Then, the next day, the Arizona Republic upped the ante with an eight-page supplement.

But you can't blame these poor schmucks. Everything we've been taught suggests that when astronauts blow up, it's time to bring Walter Cronkite back from the dead.

Challenger was a national tragedy, so why not now?

For 45 years, NASA has been America's home team. Now, the Soviets aren't Away.

On Saturday, the jarring disconnect between what news-gatherers wanted us to believe and what we actually believe became evident.

Challenger blew up at a time when reusable spacecrafts and civilians in space were exciting ideas. Since the remains of the first teacher in space were scattered off Florida, there have been 87 shuttle flights. With Challenger, everybody was watching coverage of the event. When Columbia met its tragic end, only a few space geeks in the flight pattern were watching it attempt to rocket to its Florida landing strip.

The ratings during the flight say more than the ratings after. The shuttle no longer represents our best shot at the frontier of human endeavors. When the idea of Columbia becomes less engaging than video games, it is either time for a grander exploration, or it is time to give up exploration.

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Robert Nelson