Aptly preceeding Colin Powell's screed for war in front of the United Nations and the world were a string of condolences for the death of yet another crew of astronauts killed aboard yet another crashed United States shuttle mission.

Instead, there should have been a string of criminal indictments for the inexcusable loss that mirrors the Bush Administration's latest push for war. 

Almost exactly 17 years ago, Ronald Reagan was about to give his State of the Union address.  His PR-minded handlers at the White House insisted the Challenger be shot into space that very morning.  Among others it carried a New Hampshire school teacher whose global appeal was meant to balance the image of a program being increasingly militarized. 

The Reaganauts wanted a Star Wars missile defense system that would mean tens or hundreds of billions for Boeing, Martin Marietta and other military contractors which today share responsibility for shuttle operations.  The Challenger seemed the perfect public relations foil for an administration determined to turn space into a lucrative armed camp.

But that morning dawned unseasonably cold in Florida.   NASA scientists and engineers warned frigid temperatures could cause vital O-rings to contract, leading to fuel leakage and, with a spark, a catastrophic explosion.

The danger was simple to understand and widely acknowledged by an impressive array of outside experts.

But Reagan's theatrical crew wanted the Challenger in the air as he spoke to the nation.  So that morning, with virtually every American schoolchild watching on a special televised broadcast, the Challenger blew up.

It remains unclear whether the space vehicle---and the humans inside---survived the initial launch vehicle blast, and for how long.  Equipping the shuttle with an escape vehicle was do-able, but expensive.  Reagan had decided not to spend the money. 

Money was also saved by using fossil fuels for lift-off rather than liquid hydrogen, which was more expensive but far less likely to explode.

In the wake of the disaster, Reagan won the usual gushing media praise for his eloquence at the dead astronauts' memorial services.  That he bore direct responsibility for the tragedy was barely whispered by a servile press corps. 

Now George W. Bush has replayed the same death dance.  His Administration has accelerated cuts in NASA's budget, now 40% down from a decade ago.  Brian Chase, executive director of the National Space Society, has cited "everything from rusting pipes to crumbling concrete."  Through the 1990s warnings were issued about possible problems with the heat shield and other vital shuttle components. 

Last April the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned of "a clear need" to equip the shuttle with an escape vehicle, which might have saved this year's victims. The panel's then-chair Richard Blomberg said "I have never been as worried for space shuttle safety as I am right now."

Blomberg charged that "repeated government and contractor hiring freezes have led to a lack of depth of critical skills."  He warned that NASA budgets were "not sufficient to improve or even maintain the safety risk level of operating the space shuttle."  And he told Congress and the White House that "nobody will know for sure when the safety margin has eroded too far."

Now we do.  After Bush orated over the dead astronauts, a fawning media again gushed with euphoric praise, which it then reprised for Colin Powell's war song at the United Nations.

But the whole world has now watched the US kill two crews of astronauts, both times involving civilians, both times in the face of extremely serious scientific warnings. 

And Bush now wants a second war in Iraq despite major global opposition, serious internal military and intelligence reservations and the widespread knowledge that the unintended consequences will be enormous.  A polarized world, heightened terrorism, ecological catastrophe, surging oil prices, massive civilian deaths and a dangerously unbalanced Middle East are among the virtual certainties. 

But following on Bush's Reaganesque funeral oratory, Colin Powell has made it clear that this administration is as intent on ignoring these warnings as it was in blithely shooting up yet another doomed shuttle. 

So the question we must all now ask is:  will we let this admistration drag our spaceship earth to the same fate? 

Free Press columnist Harvey Wasserman is author of THE LAST ENERGY WAR (Seven Stories Press).