Yesterday, I wrote about the 42nd anniversary of the Apollo I fire that claimed the lives of three American astronauts. Twenty-three years ago today at the moment this post publishes, the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated moments after liftoff, killing Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and teacher Christa McAuliffe. Mcauliffe’s inclusion was to herald a new age of space flight, in which ordinary citizens could venture beyond the Earth. Unfortunately, that age ended before it began in a burst of flame:
When we lost the Apollo I crew, I was not quite four years old and have no direct memory of it. For the Challenger, though, I can still clearly recall exactly where I was and how I found out about it. I was working at Hughes Aircraft as a technical writer/editor, before the days of the Internet and instant information gathering. One of my co-workers popped his head into my cubicle and said, “Did you hear that the Space Shuttle exploded?”
“That’s not funny,” I replied, giving him a look of impatience. He knew my father had worked on the space program for most of his life, and Hughes did a lot of satellite work connected to it, although I didn’t work on those projects.
“I’m not joking,” he said, and one look at his face convinced me. People were already buzzing in my area, trying to tune radios to news stations and find TVs for information. In Southern California, anything to do with the space program was big news; it employed thousands of people in that area, and the stations would provide breaking coverage of any space-connected disasters. I called the Admiral Emeritus in his office in Downey, who told me in a tight voice that no one could talk to anyone, and that he’d call me that night, if and when he returned from work.
And that’s how I knew they had lost the whole crew, even before I saw that clip.
Growing up in the space program, I can tell you that everyone — everyone — took it as a personal mission, not just a job. They met the astronauts, they challenged their peers, they strove for excellence in every single phase of the program. Did NASA and contractors make mistakes? Of course they did, and they made a negligent decision to launch on that day, even while the SRB engineers and the Rockwell mission people in Downey objected to the go order. But losing that crew was the same as losing good friends to everyone in that program.
Reagan’s address deserves a replay. On few occasions has a President understood the sorrow and anger of a nation and delivered a speech that so perfectly fit the moment.
Once again, let’s remember the pioneers who took risks to help mankind move to the stars. One day, space travel will become routine not just for test pilots and engineers, but for teachers, too, and we’ll remember the courage and spirit of Christa McAuliffe when that day arrives.