Saturday, January 28, 2006

Challenger: 20 years later

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - Twenty years ago, space shuttle Challenger blew apart into jets of fire and plumes of smoke, a terrifying sight witnessed by the families of the seven astronauts and onlookers who came to watch the historic launch of the first teacher in space.

Do you remember where you were? I watched it live on TV in my High School American History class. The teacher thought it would be cool to see an historical event on live television. We had talked all week about the possibility of space travel for the common citizen.

Then, lift off and it seemed like everything was going well. You could get the sense that everyone was holding their breath a little. Shuttle lift offs weren't that common back then.

All of a sudden, we saw something on the TV screen that nobody could make out what it was. I know the commentators kept saying something had happened, but most of us watching the TV couldn't totall figure out what it was not being space science geeks and only first seeing what looked like the tanks being ejected.

Then it hit us. We had just watched somebody die live on television in a national historic event. I remember the teacher had left the room for a moment and came back in, looked at the TV, heard everyone whispering amongst themselves, turned off the TV and then we sat and talked about it a few minutes.

No psychiatrists or counselors were called. Just a bunch of students and their teacher talking about history and death.

I'll never forget it because I still recall what Christa McAuliffe looked like during the interviews and walking to board the flight. I remember thinking that this was proof that we could do anything. Women can fly the space shuttle. Teachers can go to space. The US could put a space craft into the sky and bring it back without parachute landings.

It was a bit of a shock to find out that it didn't always work that way.

If you read the rest of the story, you will see a long discussion about "management hubris" which caused people to take risks they normally wouldn't, pushed people to certify status when they had questions, etc, etc, etc. But, there was something I took away from this more than the tragedy of losing seven astronauts in a clear blue sky.

I realized that doing something big takes big risks. That, if you let people keep telling you that you're not going to fly, you will never try and you will die on the ground. Sometimes, you just have to take a run a the cliff and make a leap of faith.

Ronald Reagan on the Challenger:

We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's take-off. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.[snip]

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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."

Everyone always quotes the last part of Reagan's speech, but I preferred an earlier phrase:

"the future doesn't belong to the faint of heart".

Challenger 20 years later

1 comment:

Jim said...

Yep, I remember. I was a young Marine PFC at 29 Palms waiting for my MOS class to start. Somehow, instead of filling, loading, and emptying sandbags, I ended up that day in the base library's audio-visual center cleaning films.

I remember thinking, "Oh, shit" when it blew up. Twenty years later that footage still evokes pretty much that same reaction from me.