Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering Challenger

It has been 25 years, but I will always remember the moment when I first heard about the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy.

I wanted to be an astronaut. I was an eager follower of anything to do with the space program, and NASA. I had written to NASA and received lots of information about the Space Shuttle program, including a ticket to attend the launch of the Columbia the previous month while we were vacationing in Florida (that launch was scrubbed at T-14 seconds).

I was sick that day with the flu, and because we didn't have a TV, I was listening to the radio to try to listen to the launch.  The station was playing a commercial, and they interrupted to say that, "The Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center a few seconds ago..." I felt elated, yet wishing I could be there, "...and there has obviously been a major malfunction."

Huh? What did that mean?

Another announcer cut in, "The Space Shuttle exploded. Oh my God!"

Suddenly it was as if the rug was pulled out from under my feet. I called my dad and interrupted his work, and he couldn't really talk. Yet I wanted to talk about it, and I was at home by myself, so I paced the floor and cried and called everyone I could think of who might be home.

Within days, people started telling NASA jokes that were sometimes morbid, sometimes crass, but tried to cover our national uncertainty with something less horrific. After the Columbia broke apart on re-entry many of those same jokes were bandied about as a new generation saw their hopes in the space program tested.

The last time humans walked on the surface of the moon, I was a very small child. Yet, we have not gone back since. From one administration to the next, our national vision for the space program changes direction. Challenger was rushed to launch, with the warnings about the o-rings becoming brittle in freezing temps ignored.

Our current space program needs more direction than it has. Today we have space tourism, and more satellite launches. One administration wants to land people on Mars, another wants to land on an asteroid. Yet we founder as to what our Space Mission should be.

NASA has lost its place in our National Psyche, Space has dropped out of our National Dream.

The Apollo program was a very real response to the Soviet Union in the Cold War, and it captivated our nation. The Shuttle program captivated us too, on a slightly smaller scale.

Yet on that January morning, 25 years ago, our national dream of space exploration took a major blow as millions of people witnessed the death of 7 brave Americans, in a tragedy that we now know was easily avoidable.

America needs a new dream for space. Not just America--our entire world needs a new goal to push towards. In 2001 we were supposed to be sending people to the outer planets. And if our progress continued at the same pace it did in the 1960's we would be there.

How are we going to get to Star Trek-like exploration, if we can't even figure out what to do next?

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