Saturday, January 29, 2011


Judith Resnik and Christa McAuliffe, Challenger astronauts

I Touch The Future

I was literally in the air, along the same U.S. East Coast, when Challenger fell from the sky. When I landed in Portland, Maine, I was met by grim faced strangers who told me. They were my hosts for a speaking engagement. By the time I was in my hotel room, television was covering the story, and reflecting the shock. Even by 1986, a space shuttle flight was fairly routine. When my hosts told me "the shuttle" had exploded, at first I thought it was the New York-to-Washington airplane shuttle. I wasn't alone in that kind of reaction --the launch had been postponed several times, and most TV networks didn't cover it live. I'm sure that only added to the shock. Something that was so normal now--yet still so dangerous. But in the hours and days that followed we reflected again on the miracle of this, of humans exploring space, and of the kind of people who were taking up that challenge.

Today NASA marked 25 years since the January 28, 1986 loss of Challenger and its seven astronauts. Seven was the total number of the original astronauts of the Mercury program, several of whom would continue through Gemini and Apollo, and would make it to the moon. One of the original seven, Gus Grissom, the second American in space, died in the only previous fatal accident of the space program. But that had happened on the launch pad. The Challenger seven were the first to be lost in flight--though they hadn't even yet reached beyond the atmosphere. The disaster began little more than a minute after liftoff.

What America learned that week was how different this crew was from those original astronauts. The original seven had been military, fighter jocks and test pilots. They were all male and white. This crew had a pilot that fit that profile--Dick Scobee, flight captain. But it also had Judith Resnik, the second American woman and first Jewish American in space; Ronald McNair, the second African American; and Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian American in space.

It was, in short, a lot like the crew of the starship Enterprise when it first appeared on TV screens twenty years before. The Challenger had particular meaning to one member of that first Enterprise crew, for Nichelle Nichols had worked with NASA to encourage women and people of color to become astronauts. Three of the Challenger crew (Onizuka, McNair and Resnik) were recruited during her drive. She became friends with McNair and Resnik, and Judy Resnik was the astronaut who presented Nichelle with the NASA Public Service Award in 1984. The next Star Trek feature film, The Voyage Home, was dedicated to the Challenger crew.

And then there was Christa McAuliffe, a civilian, the star of the mission as the "first teacher in space." She brought a lot of attention to this flight, and so a lot of school children were watching. For them and the many more who saw the footage later, this became one of those anchoring events of a lifetime. (Though there were and remain misconceptions about what happened and why.) It was worst for the children in her New Hampshire school, not all that far from Portland. This day has special meaning for them.

For awhile afterwards, Christa McAuliffe's sacrifice elevated the role of teacher in the national consciousness. Her words "I touch the future--I teach" became a bumper sticker, and are still famous and inspirational. They should be remembered too, and renewed as a national guide.

NASA has actually designated January 27 as the Day of Remembrance not only for those who died aboard Challenger but Apollo One and the space shuttle Columbia as well. To mark this day, President Obama said: "Through triumph and tragedy, each of us has benefited from their courage and devotion, and we honor their memory by dedicating ourselves to a better tomorrow. Despite the challenges before us today, let us commit ourselves and continue their valiant journey toward a more vibrant and secure future."

1 comment:

Faith Imagined said...

I remember watching this launch in school and not understanding what had happened. My teacher tried to hide her tears, but she couldn't. Thank you for bringing the sacrfice of these people back to the surface of my mind.

I wish we could all value the ability to touch the future. What a difference we would make!