Twenty years ago, at this very moment, the United States space program suffered its single greatest tragedy to that date, when the space shuttle Challenger exploded during launch.
Back in 1986, it was a tremendously exciting time here in New Hampshire. Our own Christa McAuliffe, a teacher at Concord High School, had won the role of Teacher In Space and was going up on the shuttle. School kids all across the state were excited, and classes were set aside so the students could see the launch live.
I was young, and blase, and stupid, and I skipped it. I finished up my class, went to lunch, and tried to ignore the whole thing.
Then I got the word.
I rushed back into my home room, joined my girlfriend in the back row, and stood beside her seat, my hand on her shoulder. And when they re-broadcast the moment the shuttle exploded over the Atlantic, my hand clenched down so hard on her shoulder I left bruises. I thought I had just seen seven people die. It was only later that we learned that at least some of them had survived the orbiter’s shattering, only to perish when the crew cabin shattered after slamming into the ocean at about 200 miles an hour.
I remember the jokes, too. It didn’t take long for the first tasteless Challenger jokes started going around. For a couple years, I greeted them all with a punch, a swat, a shove — I didn’t want to hear them. I still have that impulse.
Our statewide newspaper has several stories about Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger disaster in a special section today.
The lasting legacy of the Challenger disaster — and, more recently, the loss of the Columbia — was a reminder that space travel is dangerous.
There is a place for civilians in space. I hold a tremendous amount of respect for our armed services, but they can not, should not, and must not be our only representatives to the rest of the universe.
Some day, space travel and exploration will be for everyone. Leaving Earth may some day might be no more of consequence than we consider hopping on a plane and flying halfway across the country.
That day is far in the future, though. For now, two facts remain true, confirmed 20 years ago, and re-affirmed three years ago on February 1: space travel is not mundane, and it’s not for wimps.
(Correction: the Challenger disaster was on January 28, not the 22nd. The newspaper choosing to observe it almost a week early threw me off. My apologies for the confusion, and my thanks to Jason for correcting me.)