Wednesday, February 07, 2007


In 2005, when a television reporter in Madison Wisconsin walked into a Beliot radio station and acted strangely — pulled out a gun, reportedly made threatening comments to a DJ, said something about being an undercover CIA agent — he was arrested. He underwent psychological evaluation, was ultimately found not guilty by reason of "mental disease or defect," and was placed in a treatment plan. I'm glad no one was hurt. I also think it's good that no one got too carried away in analyzing the event, or went too wild blowing it out of proportion.

You may wonder why I bring this up. I want to point out that no one at the time suggested that everyone at the television station he worked for needed re-evaluation, that the station should lose advertising dollars, or that being a television reporter held inherent risks to one's mental health. (Whatever people may think privately about the latter.)

And yet, over the past few days, I've heard comments along these lines following the arrest of a member of the space program.

The trauma of the victim in the case in the news should not be minimized. My heart goes out to her.

I don't know enough about the accused or what happened to want to try a case on my blog. I'll leave that to the justice system. I just want to say that those who are making loosey-goosey statements about how the astronaut's alleged actions reflect on the space program should step back a minute and get some perspective.

Take any profession that has been around for more than an afternoon, and you will very likely find someone in it who has behaved less than rationally. Among those who've endangered the lives of others when perhaps not in their right minds: doctors, Members of Congress, Vice Presidents (I'm thinking Aaron Burr, ladies and gentlemen -- my story and I'm sticking to it), pilots get the picture. You probably get the big picture.

Of course there are concerns that someone who might be suffering a mental illness could endanger lives. (Every day, supposedly perfectly rational people probably cause far more deaths than the mentally ill, but let's not quibble.)

From all I've heard from interviewed psychologists offering opinions about her case from afar, it's unlikely that most screening processes would have identified this woman as having a problem. And unlikely that she would have identified herself in this way. I don't know.

What I do know is that it's a sad story, all the way around.

And one that has nothing to do with the importance of the space program.

Let's not get carried away.

Let's keep reaching for the stars.

[Update on photo: as you can see, the problem seems to be worked out.]

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
"This image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope shows the diverse collection of galaxies 450 million light-years away in cluster Abell S0740 near the constellation Centaurus."

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