The Last Word: Heroism

Christa McAuliffe was only one of the seven astronauts who died aboard the shuttle Challenger. Perhaps the families and friends of the other six, torn by their own private grief, occasionally resent all the attention that we have lavished on this one woman. The other six, too, left grieving wives and children and parents and loved ones.

But when we Americans lavished our attention on the McAuliffe family, and on little school children in Concord, New Hampshire — when we expressed our communal bereavement over the loss of a woman we had never met — we were not forgetting the other six members of the Challenger crew. Far from it. Christa McAuliffe was our symbol for all the members of the crew. We all knew her background, in a way that we did not know the background of her crewmates. We knew that she had been plucked out of a calm schoolteacher’s life to join the space program. We knew that she had been an ordinary American woman; someone who might have lived next door. Of course we knew that of the other Challenger astronauts, too, but we did not know the details. They were all ordinary Americans; someone’s children, someone’s parents, someone’s next- door neighbors. Then, in one sudden horrid flash, they were heroes.

Heroism is an odd thing, really. No one knows, until the crisis confronts him, whether or not he has “the right stuff.” Most of us, thank God, never face the soul-searing trials that mark true heroes. We are all potential heroes, potential cowards. We honor our heroes’ courage and strength — their virtue, to use the old word — in part to rein­force our own.

But “the right stuff” alone does not make a public hero. One must also have the right occasion. Who knows how many potential military heroes have plodded through quiet, undistinguished peacetime careers? How often have We heard about extraordinary acts of raw courage which went unnoticed and unrecognized?

Even before the Challenger disaster, the U.S. space program had produced more than its share of heroes and celebrities. We can all recall Alan Shephard, John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Sally Ride. But how many people can name the second American in space, the second to orbit the earth, the second pair on the moon, the second American woman aboard the space shuttle? In every case, there was a substitute ready, willing, and able to do the job. With the tiniest shift of fate, any one of those substitutes could have won the hero’s position.

By rights, then, do all those understudies deserve to be considered heroes? Perhaps they are not celebrities, since they did not capture the public attention that comes with a glamorous first mission. But if we choose heroes by their virtues, haven’t they earned membership in that category?

Yes, heroism is an odd thing. Courage is a matter of choice — an act of the will — and yet one cannot become a hero simply by choice. Jeremiah Denton did not choose to be shot down and captured in North Vietnam; quite the con­trary. Yet while he was there, he did choose, repeatedly, to accept torture rather than compromise his loyalty and his honor. So he learned (according to his own matter-of-fact account) to endure the tortures until the pain drove him into the blessed relief of unconsciousness.

What is it, exactly, that we admire about Denton’s per­formance? That he endured so much pain? No. Many people undergo exquisite pain as a result of traffic accidents; we sympathize heartily, but we do not consider them heroes. In Denton’s case, enduring pain was an act of leadership; it helped his POW companions to maintain their all-important spirit. His self-sacrifice was not a mere gesture; it was an important and practical achievement.

If we revere our heroes honestly, we must preserve that distinction between effective courage and simple suffering. The members of the Challenger crew are not heroes because they suffered. In all probability they died quickly and painlessly. If they are heroes, then they were ‘heroes before their fateful launch. Their death merely drew our attention to their courage. Maybe we would have forgotten them if the Challenger’s mission had been a success. If so, that would be an indictment not of their bravery, but of our ability to recognize it.

In the case of Christa McAuliffe, heroism has a special dimension. To join the Challenger crew, she won a competi­tion among some 11,000 school teachers. Is it any exaggera­tion to say that anyone who beats such enormous odds is, prima facie, a hero? Anyone who truly respects the teaching profession should be willing to honor her for that achieve­ment alone.

Ordinarily, school teachers never have an opportunity to demonstrate raw physical courage. Recall the words of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons. When More urges Richard Rich to become a great teacher, the ambitious young courtier asks, “And if I was, who would know it?” Saint Thomas responds: “You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public, that.. .”

Christa McAuliffe’s career touched a far wider public, but not a more important one. An active Catholic, she was surely prepared to meet the Lord when she boarded the Challenger. Of course she did not choose to die; yet she died on her own terms. And in dying she, like all heroes, issued a challenge to us who survived her: a call to virtue. In this case, surely, Death was a failure.


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