Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Seminal Event in My Young Adulthood – The Challenger Disaster 29 Years Ago Yesterday, January 28, 1986

Every generation experiences events during their lifetimes that cause them to stop and pause and forever remember where they were and what they were doing at the time the news was broadcast.

For my grandparents it was the 1929 stock market crash and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my parents’ generation it was Alan Shepard as the first American in space, John Glenn as the first to orbit the earth, and the Kennedy assassination that ended the Camelot of post World War II optimism. For the earliest Baby Boomers it was the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Kent State, the shock of the fire that claimed the lives of the Apollo 1 astronauts on January 27, 1967.

For my generation, the last to be born in the 1950’s and the first to brave the world in the 1960’s, it was the landing on the moon in 1969, the world’s collective heartbeat as the Apollo 13 astronauts returned to earth on a wing and a prayer, the Challenger explosion, and 9/11.
For those of us who grew up during the glory years of the American space program when NASA strived to achieve what John F. Kennedy promised on May 25, 1961- put to a man on the moon by then end of the decade – we had an emotional investment. American pride was never higher. We invested in science, discovery, and literally reaching for the moon. Children dreamed of growing up to be astronauts. Astronauts were like rock stars. In an era where most homes with TVs had fewer than 13 channels, families sat glued to the broadcast networks to watch the miracles of manned rocket launches, the landings of the capsules in water, the heroes welcome for those who risked their lives to further discovery. It seemed to culminate with the moon landing. And by the time the space shuttle program was launched, interest in space travel was beginning to wane in the American psyche. It seemed to have become routine. Although how one could ever conceive of being strapped into a capsule and catapulted into space by 2 solid rocket boosters and 3 main engines with an external fuel tank that holds 2 million liters of propellant as routine confounds me.

As I’ve posted on my Face Book page, my memory of the Challenge disaster is till vivid 29 years after it occurred. I recall my sister bursting into the officers of Commercial Union Assurance Companies on West Ohio Street in Indianapolis, Indiana proclaiming in shock that the Challenger had exploded. Time stood still. Everybody was stunned. We were still invested in the miracle of space flight. This was a time before the PC, voice mail, fax machines, mobile phones, CD players, and debit cards. Collectively, we Americans mourned. And we felt comforted by the words of our president Ronald Reagan. No matter one’s political affiliation, his words struck a chord as one of the most inspiring speeches of our time. I’ve included the text below because these words still resonate with me today.

Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Library
Address to the Nation on the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger - January 28, 1986
Ladies and gentlemen, I'd planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we've never lost an astronaut in flight; we've never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ``Give me a challenge, and I'll meet it with joy.'' They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 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 takeoff. I know it is 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.
I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute. We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: ``Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.''
There's a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, ``He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.'' Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.
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.''

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