Jan 281986

01.28.1986 – 11:38 EST

Childhood memories are blurry at best for me, this one has an edge though.

I remember we all gathered in an indoor school common area around a TV for the shuttle launch, 2nd through 5th graders, about 50 kids in all. I think I was in 2nd grade. I was already a budding young astronaut, ready to be the next Shepherd or Aldrin, already having an affinity for the unsung (or moderately less sung).

I don’t remember caring much about the teacher-in-space program as I was already into astronauts. I thought it was cool, but didn’t really see any of my teachers as candidates, and I knew teaching still wasn’t the best track to getting that ride up and out.

I remember the countdown, not understanding much then it seemed very routine and easy. I knew of the dangers of spaceflight, at such a young age they seemed abstract and akin to fantasy. To be exploded on launch, depressurized in a vacuum, or instantly frozen by the void, all delightful horrors that excite children when they are so distant that they can be conjured and forgotten at will.

It seemed impossible that sophisticated adults could create a fallible mechanism on this scale. I knew adults made mistakes, even disastrous ones, but not these kinds of adults. Adults that build machines like these are living mythological beings to a child who early idolized Edison (though to be fair our common first name may have been an initial draw).

The launch was merely an event, formulated drama and suspense, but no real danger. Everything was under control and in the hands of the men and women I wanted to be and be among when I grew up.

Some cheered as the shuttle cleared the tower and climbed into the sky with grace and confidence. The main engines translucent blue razors of thrust cutting the air while the SRBs stacked cloudy pillars beneath the ship, heaving itself upwards along them as rails.

I’d seen launches on TV before, but sharing this with so many enthusiastic people my own age, kids cheering for a spaceship, at once I belonged in this universe, on this planet, at this time. I think it is one of the very rarest feelings in all of existence.

There was no sound from the explosion. I remember finding that odd at first. Explosions always had sound, especially on TV. Nothing, no concussion boom, no camera shake, no screaming, not even an obvious change in the PAO’s emotions as he stated the obvious, that something had gone horribly wrong with the flight.

The TV was quickly obscured by the teachers, who huddled around it so the students could not see, but they continued to watch. I supposed their gut reaction was to shield us from the horrific images of the explosion, but they should have known it was useless and only made us more confused and upset. Those horrible images would be iconic in moments and we would be bombarded with them in the media for months. We would know the wicked tendrils of that contrail from any angle, any perspective, for the rest of our lives.

That exhaust trail created the perfect anthropic nightmare, a fear beyond biblical. It was a hand, but not the hand of God. It was our creation, grown beyond our command. A hand of impossible strength and effortless reach, unleashed, unlimited, uncontrolled by any mind or master.

In full view of the world this unbound hand lashed out and struck them down. It took our best from us, at their best, doing the work that only the best can do. It took them in front of our eyes, all our power, all our strength, all our will, impotent to even delay or comfort their death. The cloak, scythe, and cold darkness of the reaper seemed almost a mercy in the face of this new specter, this obliterator of heroes.

It was over for the gathered students that day. I don’t remember any real discussion of the topic, as I recall we went about our day and there was no more official word on the matter outside the continued offering of condolences and prayers to the astronauts and families over the following weeks. The flag was flown at half-staff. The kids talked about it, but not much, the world still turned and in a short time it just wasn’t news in the media or on the playground.

I still probably cared than most kids, but I had some disillusion about the whole thing. I was hurt, I’d been somehow betrayed and let down. Of course that sounds horribly selfish. I was upset about the loss of the astronauts but I was in 2nd grade and I my foundations of faith in the capacities of adults, and therefore the human race, were thrown into question. Fortunately a 2nd grader is spared compulsive existential analysis by the facts of girls, bullies, opportunities to show-off, be humiliated, and the persistent demands of existing in the biological form of a 7 year old human child.

Something big had broken and it didn’t seem like anybody knew exactly why, how to fix it, or how to make sure it never broke again. That didn’t seem right. I watched the news and heard periodically about the investigation, the o-rings, the cold. These problems sounded small, things that would only go wrong with some half-ass junk-yard rocket some kids built in some movie. NASA had checklists, mission-rules, geniuses, lot’s and lot’s of meticulous geniuses who would rather die than let a stupid little problem get onto the pad, let alone threaten a mission or the lives of the crew.

The building had fallen and the adults weren’t even clearing the rubble.

What really freaked me out is when I heard people saying that the disaster brought the need for manned spaceflight into question. Since when do we just give up like that? How shameful. Sorry to resort to a war analogy here; but to loose a single battle, and immediately surrender all the ground you’ve won in a lengthy campaign? What cowardice and foolish strategy. I always disliked hearing the people who used the death of the Challenger crew in their argument against manned space-flight. No imagination, no spirit, they defy the lives, goals, and intentions of the men and women who’s deaths they exploit for their argument. Shame on them.

Yes we need robots, but human beings solve problems, offer perspective and insights, and have souls carry the need for discovery and enlightenment, among other things.

Anyway, a lot of this is retrospection. I’ve had some time to reflect on these events and their impact on me and my generation. I don’t remember sitting in my room in 2nd or 3rd grade thinking “Man, the Challenger disaster has shaken my faith in adults in some abstract way and this will probably have a profound, though enigmatic impact on me and my whole generation’s attitudes towards space travel.”

The disaster faded, even for me, just faded away. That’s no sin, everything fades, disasters should and must, else such vivid persistent memories would incapacitate us. What is a sin, is that we let the greatness and our boldness towards space fade also.

Every school-age child in American watched the Challenger disaster together. The teacher-in-space program was designed to increase public awareness in science and space, and it worked. Schools across the nation took time out of students schedule to show them what you could achieve if you worked hard in school, became educated, and pursued a dream in space, you could get there. The Challengers crew of 7 included an Asian-American, an African-American, and two women. One of the most diverse crews that had yet flown. The flight was about education, and inspiration, and hope.

The loss of Challenger and her crew did not have the be the end of the story. The teacher-in-space program ended with the death of it’s first participant, Christa McAuliffe. How could such an insult be allowed? I am sorry Christa, I’m going to see if I can help turn that around for you. I know you would have wanted their to be a teacher-in-space on the very next flight and there damn well should have been.

What if that had happened? What if 2 years later there was another teacher-in-space aboard STS-26 and we got pulled out of class to watch that teacher fly. What if we had been brought together once again to watch the phoenix rise, as we were together when it burned? What if adults had shown us that failure, properly assessed and understood, is merely a step towards achievement. What if they had shown us that the we celebrate our fallen heroes with boldness and renewed readiness. What if we’d seen this together, a generation that could have seen a miracle pulled from a disaster, watched and celebrated together. We didn’t, it ended with the disaster. The opportunity has passed. This is more a lament for that fact than anything else. We were too afraid of the worst to make any allowance for the best. There was no teacher-in-space and the program was ended.

The next 3 crews were all white males, And it was 7 before another African-American flew. I don’t remember gathering for a launch in school ever again. I remember official school gatherings during the first Gulf War about how to behave in the event of a terrorist school takeover, I remember being taught to put a wet rag over my face in case of some kind of chemical attack. I remember school gatherings about drugs, about violence, about dress-code, about cheating. I remember a school sponsored concert featuring an imported European boy-band that was asked to leave the stage after grabbing their crotch too much. I remember a school event where students paid to see their teachers ride diaper-wearing donkeys and attempt to play basketball. A teacher was thrown and broke an arm and the event was cancelled.

I remember lots a lots of ridiculous school gatherings, so many that I cannot fathom any excuse why time could not have been allotted to watch a single shuttle launch in my remaining 10 years of elementary, middle school, and high school education.

There must be some profound and resonating social effect from the fact that the Challenger disaster was watched by so many students together, and that the flight represented what it did in education and diversity. It seems a kind of collective psychological event that should be addressed, actually should have been addressed, and I’m probably not the first to think or say it but I haven’t heard much discussion so I just wanted to write down my thoughts about it.

I’m 32 years old now (2010), that’s about the youngest you can be and still have seen the Challenger disaster while in school. So the age group that watched the launch in school together is between 32 and 42 today. On the front end of this age range, those who went to college would have hit the job market or grad school around 1990 and then the last of us would around 2000. I don’t have any statistics on this, but it seems like these decades correspond to the rise in a breed of young, aggressive business, financial minds pushing the boundaries of the markets. The kind of pushing that led to bailouts and housing market collapses, and crazy derivative market systems. It also seems that this is the same time-frame in which many tech-savvy software and internet engineers made bold stakes on the profitability of web-based business models too early, and suffered the dot com crash. I’m not suggesting this was a direct and inevitable result of a generation watching a spaceflight disaster together. I don’t know what I’m suggesting. I guess it just seems to me that a lot of these people were simply aggressive, capable, and driven, and they happily applied themselves to the things that society had demonstrated favor towards.

In the 1960’s young people with engineering, mathematical and scientific minds saw men built mighty rockets and do things only imagined in comic books. They heard of the failure of Apollo 1 and the gruesome death of the crew, but they saw the perseverance and creativity of the engineers, they saw the bravery and heroism of the astronauts, they saw the steely resolve and meticulous care of the flight crews. They saw the failure turned into great achievement. They saw, and believed, that they could be a part of such a thing if they applied themselves.

They became my parents generation and they were probably disappointed in their own way when they spent all that time getting science and engineering degrees only to find the funding was available for military research but not space.

I think a lot my generation just decided not to go for those degrees at all. Why bother? Math is hard. Why should I get a technical degree? The real money’s in business and intellectual property and if you get good at that you can hire nerds or computers to do math for you. Or maybe humanities, or music. We all know we’re going to have to get meaningless jobs for awhile before we sell our first big album or novel anyway so who cares what the degree’s in.

Well obviously that last part was a bit of a self-indictment. Obviously I’ve made some choices in life that have steered me away from my early dreams, only to find later that those were the most honest dreams I ever had and maybe the only ones that weren’t rooted in vanity. But now it feels too late or too foolish to chase them and that I need to find the elemental spark in those dreams and light up a fucking Saturn V with that shit or I’ll go to hell because getting out into space is the only fucking thing that matters and we’ve got such an infinitesimally small chance to be something greater than a fucking evolutionary spasm. That chance is so small and it’s slipping away in my fucking lifetime and I’m watching it and I can’t fucking stop it.

We could bear thoughtful witness to a universe full of beauty. We’re just opening our eyes to it and I cannot stand to think that an eye once opened to such awesome wonder would ever choose to close or cast away from the glory of creation, for fear, for anything. If such an eye can choose to close then enlightenment is a lie, there is no wheel, there is no soul, there is no creation, it is clockwork without a maker, and without even a clock-face, only gears turning gears. Fallen together by impossible chance in infinitely meaningless time and space, some thermodynamic mistake. If this were the truth of the universe and I had the power, I would destroy that clock to spare its cogs and gears from suffering another meaningless turn. What a sick idea. To be a gear, turning the next and the next, but measuring no time, part of no apparatus, only gears on gears on gears, turning, eternally. Useless. I cannot accept this.

The universe is beyond my understanding I am certain as I am alive that it has meaning, and purpose, and therefore humans in it must have meaning and purpose.
For now, with our limited capacity for enlightened thought – I offer a very simple understanding of the purpose of the universe and human beings in it.
The purpose of the universe is simply to kill us, destroy everything we create, and wipe out everything we know and love. I personally have no problem with that, at least the universe isn’t petty or prejudiced.
My problem is entirely with humans, because we are about to start sucking really bad at our purpose. Our purpose is to not let the universe annihilate us for as long as possible.

That’s about as philosophical as I have to be about the whole thing. We survive, or we don’t. I prefer survival. I have faith in the existence of meaning, so for now we can just worry about surviving so we’ll have more time to work on meaning later. So, back to shuttles.

So we approach the last shuttle launch, and for all we know the last non-commericial manned American space-launch. I’d like young people to be able to have that memory, I’d like best if they were allowed to share it. I think sharing those memories as a generation is more powerful than we can predict. I think the shared memories of the challenger have had profound effect and will continue to.

God bless the crew of STS-51-L, their families and loved ones. And God bless those who grieved their deaths, but still know that their work was, and is, worth dying for.

Challenger – STS-51-L – Crew
Commander Francis R. Scobee
Pilot Michael J. Smith
Mission Specialist 1 Ellison S. Onizuka
Mission Specialist 2 Judith A. Resnik
Mission Specialist 3 Ronald E. McNair
Payload Specialist 1 Sharon Christa McAuliffe (Teacher in Space)
Payload Specialist 2 Gregory B. Jarvis