Archive for January 28th, 2011
Each generation has its watershed days – those days of unimaginable triumph or tragedy that they are etched into the mind forever – every sense, every thought, every emotion can be recalled in detail at a moment’s notice. For my grandparent’s generation December 7, 1941 and August 15, 1945 were the most memorable, for my parents it was November 22, 1963 and probably July 20, 1968. For my generation it was 25 years ago today – January 28, 1986.
I actually can’t remember everything about that day – at least until lunch – about all I can recall is that it was a very sunny, pretty unremarkable morning of my senior year in high school. Now, you have to remember that at this time the 24 hour news cycle we have was still in its infancy, only a handful of the very rich and powerful had mobile phones and the internet was just a communication tool for universities so a lot of information was still passed the old-fashioned way – word of mouth. Lunchtime rolled around so I went to the cafeteria, hit the wheel of death, popped my pocket pastry in the microwave and sat down at the table I shared with my friends. One of the guys, a junior, came in and plopped down at the table, not even touching his lunch. He leaned over to us and asked if we had heard the space shuttle blew up.
I looked at him and asked “Ok, what’s the punchline?”.
April 12, 1981 was, to a lesser extent, another watershed day. I still remember the excitement building up to that day. My entire seventh grade class crammed into our science teacher’s classroom and watched a little 19″ TV with rabbit ears sticking out of the top as Columbia launched “a new era in space travel”. I was too young to remember more than brief seconds of the later Apollo missions – my first real recollection of the US space program was watching the Apollo-Soyuz mission. But the shuttle launch, that was ours. I remember the rumble of the engines even through the dinky TV speaker; the graceful, almost painful slowness of the shuttle clearing the launch tower; the monotone, clinical detachment of mission control; and how it became an almost imperceptible speck of brightness in the sky, eventually disappearing from view. For a young science fiction fan (by this time I had already read lots of Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein, loved Star Trek and Star Wars) this was one of the most exhilarating days of my life.
Fast-forward 5 years – STS-51-L was different flight than the previous ones – ANY spaceflight for that matter – because it would be the first flight of a civilian into space. That the civilian was a teacher made it even more interesting than normal to educators and students alike.
However, 5 years and 24 flights later, shuttle launches had almost become routine, barely getting a mention halfway into the nightly news. This sense of complacency had even drifted into the highest reaches of NASA administration for which 7 people – and to an extent, the entire nation – would pay the highest cost.
My friend’s long face grew longer. Even as he said the words I knew what they would be – “I’m not joking”. Ironically my next class was Current Events. I had no doubt our instructor would have it on, so I dumped the cold remnants of my lunch in the garbage and rushed to the classroom. Other teachers and students were already gathered – I looked at my teacher and he silently nodded me in even though there was another class going on at the time. There I was, back in a darkened classroom crammed with students and teachers, watching a dinky 19″ TV with rabbit ears sticking out of the top, but my emotions couldn’t have been more different. This was an all-boys prep school, so tears and softer emotions were usually ridiculed, but on this day I saw some of our toughest students stunned and watery-eyed and one of our most stoic teachers wept openly. I stayed glued to the TV for the rest of my class as did everyone else, the class bells hardly even acknowledged. After the final class of the day, either our band director cancelled after-school practice – which he NEVER did – or I just skipped it in a fog and went home.
We have all heard phrases like “thunderstruck”, “something shifted”, “it felt like an earthquake hit” – this was the first time I realized this was an actual physical sensation and not just a metaphor. Up until this point, for me spaceflight was some magical fairy tale, something I looked at with awe and wonder. On January 28, 1986 I really, truly, horribly understood the sacrifices that pushing the boundaries requires of us, and I to this day I hold my breath and pray every launch when I hear “go at throttle up”.
Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe, today I honor and remember you and the sacrifice you made. I will never forget.
- @muskrat_john send an email to address firstname.lastname@example.org ie, verizon would be email@example.com #
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