Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Press Priorities

Twenty-nine years ago this week, millions of American television viewers witnessed the first US Space Shuttle disaster. Barely a minute after take-off, NASA’s Challenger spacecraft disintegrated as a result of rocket booster failure (Figure 80.1). An ‘O-ring’ seal failed, which allowed burning gas, under high pressure, to escape and cause structural damage to the external fuel tank. The laws of aerodynamics did the rest.

Figure 80.1: The craft exploded just 73 seconds into flight.

Copyright © 1986 AP Photo

None of its crew survived. Following an extensive inquiry by the Rogers Commission, the timing of their deaths remained inconclusive, although it was proved that not all of them died immediately upon breakup. The craft was not equipped with an escape facility, and it would have been impossible to survive such a high-momentum splashdown into the Atlantic.

A university undergraduate at the time, I recall seeing real-time footage on television in my hall of residence. For me, the most memorable image of that day was the look of helplessness on the face of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) (Figure 80.2) the moment he realized that seven remarkable Americans had, suddenly, unexpectedly, and in full view of the entire world, lost their lives.

Figure 80.2: President Reagan watches television footage.

Copyright © 1986 Ronald Reagan Library

Media attention prior to the launch had been especially frenetic. Part of its appeal was the presence of a schoolteacher among the crew. Christa McAuliffe (1948-86) (Figure 80.3) had been chosen to be the first civilian in space, and, unsurprisingly, press worldwide – there was, of course, no Internet back then – turned an ordinary woman (who was anything but) into an icon of the American Dream.

Figure 80.3: Christa McAuliffe became an inspiration to the American people.

Copyright © 1985 NASA

Throughout the aftermath, the tragedy of Challenger and its crew dominated every front page. Three days after the disaster, President Reagan made a poignant speech at the Johnson Space Center memorial service, attended by 10,000 NASA personnel and guests, and paid tribute in his State of the Union address that same week.

Fast forward from 1986 to this week. In the world’s newspapers, there has been scarcely a paragraph in memory of those seven heroic lives lost. In fact, only one press column caught my eye, and for all the wrong reasons. The headline read: Picture-perfect Cotswold village ruined by a ... yellow car. In the Cotswolds, in south-west England, there is a quaint village called Bibury, in which there lies a row of immaculately-preserved medieval cottages. These 14th-century dwellings are a magnet for tourists, photographers in particular.

Living opposite the row is a retired dentist whose own cottage has no garage. So, the 82-year-old Mr Maddox parks his (bright yellow) car on the road outside his front door (Figure 80.4). Despite this being a near-necessity for the old gentleman, and entirely lawful, passing photographers have expressed surly disapproval of the ‘ugly little yellow car’ photobombing their pictures of this idyllic English scene. ‘That flipping yellow car!’ wrote one. Another added: ‘It gets in the way of photographs. I have cursed the yellow car today.’

Figure 80.4: If the presence of Mr Maddox’s yellow car is so offensive, perhaps those pedantic tourists could either crop their images or learn to use Photoshop.

Copyright © 2015 Northern and Shell Media Publications

Honestly, I do not know what dismays me most. Is it that there are people who consider their precious photographs to be of greater importance than the convenience of an elderly resident parking his own vehicle outside his own property? Or that a long-established British newspaper would see fit to turn such a non-story into national news? Or am I simply saddened by the fact that the fate of the 1986 Challenger crew (Figure 80.5) did not warrant even a footnote on the anniversary of its tragic end?

Figure 80.5: Not forgotten: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe (back row, second from left)

Copyright © 1986 NASA

Besides, Mr Maddox is not the only retired British dentist who parks a canary-yellow car outside his home (Figure 80.6).

Figure 80.6: I await the complaints.

Copyright © 2015 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2015 Paul Spradbery

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