The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy: An Essay

Charles R. Figley, Ph.D.

The Nation was transfixed by the terrible tragedy that rained down over Texas today, February 1, 2003. All the television and radio broadcast and cable networks with news departments provided continuous coverage of the tragedy. Television showed, over and over again, the streams of smoke across the sky that were thought to be what was left of the Columbia.

Expert after expert was interviewed about their perspective on what happened and why. In addition to addressing the questions of most Americans who are shocked by this tragedy, the answers address a fundamental principle in trauma psychology and help us cope. We know from more than 30 years of trauma psychology research that like a physical wound, there is an emotional wound from traumatic events that need attention and healing. Most people survive and heal completely from most physical wounds, thanks to good medical attention. Most people also fully recover from psychological wounds. We think we know why.

When we are confronted by a traumatic event, including one such as this latest shuttle tragedy, we cope by a combination of stock taking and self assurance, supplemented by additional information and consultation from others. Specifically, people of all cultures and circumstances tend to address five fundamental questions. The answers serves as a blueprint for coping and turning one’s attention to the more immediately life challenges of daily living. These questions are (1) What happened? We want to know exactly what happened in order to know the degree to which should care. If we do not care we give it no more of our attention. For most Americans (and Israelis and Indians because one of their was on the crew) care because it is such a high-profile project and mission. Even more important, however, we want to know because of the possibility that it may be a terrorist act. This leads, then, to the second question.

(2) Why did it happen? We need to determine the scope and nature of the event in order to rule out terrorism or any other cause that may increase our need for action for self protection or the protection of others we care about. Knowing why it happened will help us to master the stressfulness of the event and to get on with our lives. For many people, no other questions require answering. For some, however, this tragedy provokes emotions linked to other things in their lives. They seek answers to three other questions.

(3) Why did I act as I did (when learning about the tragedy)? For those who remain concerned (perhaps obsessed) with this tragedy they may wonder why and ponder their reactions. Some, for example, admit that they cried. Others immediately thought of Iraq. Others felt a sense of doom and foreboding. These reactions sometimes reveal useful information about who we are and how we are coping in life generally.

(4) Why do I continue to be bothered by this (tragedy)? At a certain level of awareness we recognize that perhaps we are “over reacting” to this event. Most often we are right and that we are reaction to more than the event; that the event is a context for reacting to life stressors that include but are not limited to traumatic ones.

(5) Will I be able to cope if something like this happens again? This is the sin qua non of surviving and thriving from a traumatic event. It is mastery over one’s past and destiny. It is a major element in our efforts to construct a “healing theory” about the trauma we faced and mastered.

The degree to which we are assured by our answers is the degree to which we can overcome our fears and live a normal and productive life with the full knowledge of the traumatic events we have survived.

Thus, in most instances, the tragedy of February 1, 2003 interests us but does not traumatize us. It reawakens our general anxiety that has been stimulated by other more personal traumatic events, including 9/11, the economic downturn, and other stressors.

For some this tragedy will awaken old emotional wounds caused by other, more personal traumas that are not yet healed. Addressing the trauma questions associated with today’s tragedy veers into questions associated with these more troubling traumatic memories.

So what do we do? First we need to be thankful that most of this is highly manageable and feel compassion and empathy for the crew who lost their lives and the family, friends, and colleagues who knew and will miss them. Second, we need to take stock in what unhealed, emotional wounds we are carrying around. Just as we now know that physical inflammation is as risky to our heart as high cholesterol, so to is the emotional inflammation caused by traumatic stress.

Take the time for soul searching, compare notes with friends and loved ones about what you are feeling and why. Sometimes our faith and spirituality enable us to discover and manage these conflicts. But if these do not work seek out the help of a professional counselor to address and answer these universal questions of the traumatized.

Charles R. Figley, Ph.D.

Editor, Traumatology
Florida State University Traumatology Institute
Tallahassee, Florida, USA
February 1, 2003