Friday, January 28, 2011
The Challenger disintegrates shortly after liftoff on January 28, 1986.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Today marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger.
As with other major Catastrophic Events, who among us who was alive at the time (and old enough to be aware of the world around us) does not remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard the news?
Shuttle Mission STS-51L would have been exceptional in any event, given that it had an Ordinary Citizen - a teacher, no less - aboard. Christa McAuliffe, flag-bearer of Ronald Reagan’s Teacher in Space Project, had been selected from over 11,000 hopeful applicants to accompany the Shuttle crew in an attempt to boost public enthusiasm for math, science, and space exploration. Thus it was that the Challenger’s fateful launch was seen by record numbers of impressionable (and soon to be horrified) schoolchildren, who would be taught a Life Lesson they would never forget.
There’s an old Yiddish expression: Men tracht, und Gott lacht. Men make plans; God laughs at them.
The Challenger disintegrated at 11:38 a.m. EST, roughly 73 seconds after liftoff. Nobody who was present at the launch site or who was watching the event on live television could have felt anything but a brief WTF moment followed by the terrible, slowly dawning realization that something bad had happened, something most emphatically Not In The Script. That evil, Hydra-headed vapor trail definitely did not fit the Standard Mission profile.
Me, I was in Middleoffuckingnowhere, Tennessee, entertaining a customer on behalf of the Great Corporate Salt Mine. We got the news while at lunch, probably 90 minutes or so after the event. To say that it put a damper on the day would be an understatement; I drove back to the Nashville airport - a three-hour trip - in a morose frame of mind.
That night, President Reagan postponed the scheduled State of the Union address, instead giving the lost astronauts a touching valedictory that quoted John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
And we should not forget them, either. Francis “Dick” Scobee. Michael J. Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Judith Resnik. Ronald McNair. Sharon Christa McAuliffe. Gregory Jarvis. Ave atque vale!