There's something fascinating in the way the destruction of an American space shuttle rivets the American consciousness. The last time I saw all three national networks pull scheduling for news coverage of an event was, of course, September 11, 2001.

Logically speaking, there's no reason why this should happen. An aircraft going down with all crew would be a newsworthy tragedy, but it would never replace normal programming. Granted, airplanes are normal and space shuttles are not, but I really think it's more than that.

NASA's annual budget shortfall notwithstanding, we still see every last one of our astronauts as heroes. Not just celebrities, real heroes. Why else would there be so much flak over rich citizens buying their way aboard a space station? Because the perception is that they didn't "earn" their way to such a privilege. The Space Race is long since over, but we still see our astronauts as being the honored recipients of a great opportunity, which they wouldn't get if they didn't somehow deserve it, and which we all beg them to share with us upon their return.

It doesn't matter how trivial the mission or their experiments were. It doesn't even really matter if the astronauts aboard were Americans or not. John Denver goes down in the mountains in a private plane and it makes the six o'clock news, but when a group of mostly scientists, all of them middle-aged, dies on a return trip from orbit it makes everyone in the country stop what their doing and take notice.

NASA deserves to be proud of this remarkable truth. It's a legacy they earned back in the days of the Apollo missions and never truly lost. No matter how many Americans tell them the International Space Station isn't worth building, deep down they all believe otherwise, because deep down they all wish they were the ones up there living on it.