February 2, 2003

The Today’s Papers feature on Slate.com sums up the lead stories in the majors: New York, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times et al. But for this story, I’m more interested in the news from America’s latest ground zero, the tomb of the Space Shuttle Columbia, a pock-marked stretch of land stretching at least 100 miles long and 10 miles wide through parts of Texas and Louisiana dubbed the “debris belt.”

Online pointers from NewsLink.org to Texas papers and broadcast news operations and their neighbors in Louisiana make it clear that newsrooms big and small hit the ground running yesterday. They  continue to work the Shuttle disaster story hard. (FYI: Some of these links will require registration; a pain, to be sure, but worth doing if you want to stay on top of the story.)

The Search for Debris and Bodies

Good work by Lee Hancock and Dallas Morning News team on the mammoth task of locating the debris. The Tyler Morning Telegraph’s Jacque Hilburn provided a good roundup. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans tallies the sightings in Louisiana.

For many Texas papers, this global news story has become a personal one as residents witnessed the doomed flight and its horrific aftermath, and then became part of the recovery effort. Case in point: The discovery of a flight helmet on James Couch’s property in Saint Augustine County chronicled by reporter Christine S. Diamond of the Lufkin Daily News.

There’s a health angle to be pursued. How dangerous is Shuttle debris–and why? The Fort Worth Star Telegram reported Sunday that people near the Texas-Louisiana border–where astronaut remains and Shuttle parts have been found, sought medical attention for burns and respiratory distress.

The Relic Effect: Story Idea
The Shuttle pieces, some as “shreds no bigger than a quarter,” are scattered over a debris trail that may be 500 miles long. NASA needs them to reconstruct the craft and learn what happened over the skies yesterday, but some people may be collecting them.

“Some people who found wreckage picked it up and carried it home,” the Morning News story says.
“Others, like Pat Ivy, felt compelled to guard what they’d found. Mr. Ivy, who lives in Cherokee County, found a chunk of charred metal on U.S. Highway 84 between Palestine and Rusk. He moved it to the road’s shoulder and waited for law officers to arrive.

“By midafternoon, dressed in overalls and work boots with a Styrofoam cooler at his side, he was still sitting in the bed of his pickup alongside the road. “I want to make sure it gets in the right hands,” he said. “They’ve got to piece this back together, and it’s gonna take all these parts.”

Collecting relics is a human response to tragedy; witness the list of relics of the Lincoln assassination in April 1865.

“Objects owned by or associated with Abraham Lincoln quickly became relics, reminding Americans of Lincoln’s greatness and challenging them to keep his ideals alive,” a Smithsonian Institution report notes. “One of the Smithsonian Institution’s most treasured icons is this top hat, worn by Lincoln to Ford’s Theatre on the night of his assassination.”

 It may have been a hoax but postings of Shuttle debris for sale on eBay.com led to the online auction site removing the items, theStreet.com reported. It wouldn’t be the first time, according to collectspace.com, which reported the 1999 conviction of an Ohio man for trying to sell a piece of thermal tile from the Space Shuttle Challenger. on eBay. The AP has catalogued the Columbia Shuttle debris findings so far.

Given the importance of recovering every piece of the Shuttle, an interesting and important story could be told  about conflicting impulses behind the “relic effect.”

Houston, We have a problem.
Eric Berger of The Houston Chronicle caught the mood in and around the locked-down Johnson Space Center.

Trail of loss
Local coverage of the Shuttle disaster demonstrates the breadth of the impact. KFOR-TV in Oklahoma City documents the loss of one scientific experiment. A UPI story assesses the scientific casualties. There may be a local angle at a university research lab in your area.

Reaction pieces
Todd Purdum of the New York Times was one of the first to capture the national mood in “Disaster Stirs Already Unsettled Feelings Across the Country,” a piece posted Saturday afternoon.

Persuasion on deadline

With seventeen columnists and editiorial writers arriving today for a  “Persuasive Writing” seminar,  I was especially interested in the way the Shuttle disaster demanded commentary on deadline. By late afternoon Saturday, the Dallas Morning News had a shuttle disaster editorial prominently linked on its web. The Houston Chronicle’s editorial was posted at 1:43 p.m.

Shuttle-bashing begins
Gregg Easterbrook, a longtime Shuttle critic, argues in Time that “It is time NASA and the congressional committees that supervise the agency demonstrated a tiny percentage of the bravery shown by the men and women who fly to space—by canceling the money-driven shuttle program and replacing it with something that makes sense.”

The Weekly Standard prominently reposted a two-year-old anti-shuttle polemic, an essay by Charles Krauthammer, from the Jan. 31, 200 edition:  “If we are going to save resources in acknowledgment of the diminished national will to explore, we should begin by shutting the maw that is swallowing up so much of the space budget: the shuttle and the space station.”
The title of the piece makes clear Krauthammer’s preference for space exploration: “On to Mars.”

Readers Post condolences
The Austin American-Statesman provided an online forum for readers to share their feelings.

Seen a good piece of journalism about the Shuttle disaster? Share it here.




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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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