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Godspeed Challenger

(crossposted from my pro blog)

Thirty years ago today, about ten minutes into chemistry class, the phone rang.

Before that moment, I don't think any of us had really noticed that there was a phone in the science room. We all stared, bewildered, as our teacher walked over, picked it up, listened silently for a moment, and put it back down. Then, still without a word, he pulled out the TV cart and turned it on.

I don't remember hearing a word spoken for at least an hour that didn't come from that TV. There might have been an announcement over the PA at some point, but if so I didn't really register it.

It took several minutes to grasp what we were seeing, that somewhere in that enormous plume across the sky -- too big, all wrong -- were the atoms of what had been seven brave, excited people.

He never said, but I can't imagine Mr. Underwood didn't apply for the seat Christa McAuliffe sat in that day. The man who hosted the Science Club at his own house, playing an old 45 of "They're Coming to Take Me Away" at the beginning and end of each meeting, presiding over discussions of when we would next take the Van de Graaff generator over to the elementary school to raise little kids' hair or how one might build a working lightsaber. The one who nominated me for both my Society of Women Engineers awards, even as I was realizing my career path led through all the stories I had to tell.

But I knew that plume was all wrong, too big, because I had watched so many of them rise into the sky before. Most of us in that class were born the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. None of us remembered a time when the countdown and the ignition and the rising column of smoke weren't events to look forward to on TV, to hope they fell on teacher in-service days during the school year, to tape when VCRs became a thing. The "send a civilian to space" idea happened because the public was losing interest, a fact that was utterly baffling to me when I read about it.

When I was a little girl (big enough to know that "pirate" and "Jedi" weren't actual options, but before I figured out they came under the heading of "actor"), I wanted to be a ballerina or an astronaut. Preferably both. By 1986, three years into a twelve-inch growth spurt that threw my center of gravity so far off I didn't find it until I was about 25, "ballerina" was pretty firmly off the table. But "astronaut" was still very much in the mix, alongside a few other options that had cropped up over the years. I was even considering applying to the Air Force Academy the following summer, for the sole reason that it was how you got to be an astronaut. (Well, one way. But Annapolis was two time zones away while Colorado Springs was at the foot of a mountain I could see from atop the swingset in my back yard. Besides, I was an Air Force brat, and "Navy wings are made of lead." *g*)

When this anniversary comes around, there's a lot of talk about how the loss of Challenger and her crew changed NASA -- made it more cautious, made people start questioning even more whether we should be doing all this in the first place. It wasn't the first accident, but it was the first I remember seeing with my own eyes. The first to to happen when space travel had become so seemingly routine that we were sending a social-studies teacher up there.

That caution was, and is, all to the good. As much as we might yearn to stand on Mars tomorrow, we need to be careful.

These people should be celebrating this anniversary with their families. They should be telling their children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren what the Earth looked like from orbit on that January morning.

They are immortal, but they should be home. Our pioneers should not be martyrs, not if we can avoid it.

But we still need our pioneers.

Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
amilyn
Jan. 28th, 2016 05:29 pm (UTC)
This is gorgeous.
wiliqueen
Jan. 28th, 2016 10:16 pm (UTC)
Thank you. :-)
diannelamerc
Jan. 28th, 2016 06:35 pm (UTC)
Wow. So well written.

I had the day off from school—no internet, of course, no one else around, not even a book I hadn't read. I'd planned to binge-watch tv all day and when I woke up there was nothing else on. Not on any channel, not all day long. I finally turned it off when the endless repetition of the same newsbit and video shot drove me so mad I actually just preferred to sit alone and stare at a wall. (I didn't even have my mom to talk to until 6pm.)

I know I had a weird experience of it, and can't even really imagine what it would be like to experience with other people. Or if I had actually been one of the kids who'd even known the launch was that day, much less one of the crying kids they dug out for the cameras whose entire school had gotten up and come in early to school assembly so everyone could watch.

I ended up infuriated by the repetition of the video, and endless speculation over how this was crushing the hopes and dreams of all the children all across America, if not the world. I was 16. It was sad, sure, but accidents happen and you ran out of things to report hours ago. Surely *something* else had happened on the damned planet that day. But 8 channels on the tv and not a one would be the first to break away I guess.

So yeah, very different experience for me (than that of most people). This write up actually helps give me some insight into how and why this was a real emotional milestone for so many people—something it took me years to even begin to understand.
wiliqueen
Jan. 28th, 2016 10:20 pm (UTC)
Oh, man, that would have driven me SO insane. I don't blame you a bit.

I was done after an hour, probably not even that. And yeah, it was pretty much all we talked about all day -- I think maybe they let school out early, but I can't remember for sure -- but at least we stopped watching it.

I didn't want to see any more of it until we started to get a "why" (which took at least a few days, even for hypotheticals -- IIRC, it was months before we even started to hear about the O-ring issue -- but I kept looking back at it over the next few days, hoping we'd find out something new.

Edited at 2016-01-28 10:21 pm (UTC)
diannelamerc
Jan. 29th, 2016 03:01 am (UTC)
Oh good. It occurred to me only after I was AFK for most of the day that this could have come off as threadcrapping, and I didn't mean it to.

Yeah, I lasted several hours out of sheer boredom and hope they would finish up, and had no one to discuss it with. And I felt like such a heartless bitch for so long because I didn't feel devastated or traumatized (like the TV kept telling me everyone was) and then went further and ended up angry and resenting it because of the 'enforced' coverage I experienced. Such very different experiences of the same thing at basically the same age.

And I thought the O-ring thing came up within a few days, but it was a long time before they established that it was a solid contender, much less confirmed that it was indeed the fail point. (Then again, I was so pointedly Sick And Tired Of The Damned Thing And Over It Already before the end of the same day, so I wasn't paying attention to continuing coverage nearly the way you were.)
wiliqueen
Jan. 29th, 2016 03:23 am (UTC)
And I thought the O-ring thing came up within a few days

It could very well have, and me be remembering completely wrong.

But no, not threadcrapping at all. It was very clear that you were putting pieces together, and I'm glad mine were useful. :-)
b1uemorpho
Feb. 8th, 2016 03:31 am (UTC)
Belated comment as I haven't logged into LJ for awhile ... I actually relate to that completely. My school didn't make any kind of announcement, but word filtered around. (I think the rumor was that our art/photography teacher had applied for the teacher-in-space program and was devastated by it.) One of my classmates said everyone on board had died and another classmate asked, "Even the teacher?" and the first classmate made a sarcastic joke in reply. I don't remember exactly what he said, but he made it clear that he thought it was a stupid question because, of course, the teacher didn't have magical powers of indestructibility. (In the weeks that followed, I also remember teenage boys exchanging gruesome Challenger jokes in an attempt to out-gross each other.)

And then the school day just went on as usual and I went home to watch my soap operas, but the VCR had recorded nothing but news footage and I was selfishly annoyed because I wanted my escapism and instead they were showing the same footage over and over. The weird thing that I remember the most was this second-hand embarrassment on the part of the people who cheered when the shuttle exploded (not knowing for a second or two that something was wrong). That's really the only emotion I can remember feeling, thinking how mortifying it would have been to cheer a tragedy. I don't even know if that was true or if it was just the narrative the TV announcers attached to that moment.

And as the news coverage continued (no alternate programming to break the monotony), I just got sort of annoyed because I was sure that at least seven other people had died tragic deaths in car accidents or fires or whatever that same day and I didn't quite understand why everyone was so much more upset about these seven people. (For context, I'd experienced more than my share of death by that point in my young life--cancer, murder, tornado, and even unexplained--and had a very fatalistic attitude about the fact that we all inevitably die and I couldn't understand why other people always acted so surprised by that fact. In hindsight, I realize that for many of my generation, this was their first realization that even teachers and astronauts die.)

I actually had a much stronger emotional response to the Columbia disaster. I turned on the TV that day and at first thought it must be the anniversary of the Challenger explosion because that's what they seemed to be talking about and then it suddenly dawned on me that it was another shuttle. With the perspective of an adult, they all seemed so young and the whole thing so terrifying and sad. (Whereas teenage me would never have thought the word "young" about anyone over thirty let alone forty.)
diannelamerc
Feb. 8th, 2016 06:09 am (UTC)
I just got sort of annoyed because I was sure that at least seven other people had died tragic deaths in car accidents or fires or whatever that same day and I didn't quite understand why everyone was so much more upset about these seven people. (For context, I'd experienced more than my share of death by that point in my young life--cancer, murder, tornado, and even unexplained--and had a very fatalistic attitude about the fact that we all inevitably die and I couldn't understand why other people always acted so surprised by that fact. In hindsight, I realize that for many of my generation, this was their first realization that even teachers and astronauts die.)

This.

I hadn't actually seen as much death by that point as you had (it sounds like), but I had seen some and had the same attitude.* I realized many teens & kids were having that "first" experience and (at the sensitive and all-knowing age of 16) wanted to smack everyone with the reality stick so they would stop circling around the idea in incomprehension. "Everyone dies. Accidents happen. This is life, people!"

* Although, admittedly, by that point I'd many years before come to accept that I would never live to see 30 because of imminent Cold War nuclear destruction. From pretty much the first time I seriously registered the threat I never feared it; I simply accepted it as a reality of life. That might have tweaked my attitude pretty early.

(And, to sideline a bit:) I pretty much have the same attitude now, and had much the same reaction to 9/11. Yes it was a shock. Yes it was terrible. Yes so many people died and so much damage was done. But I swear 50% of people's reaction was overwhelming shock that "this could happen in the USA?!?". Um, we were (and generally are at any given moment) pissing off more people around the world (for reasons both sane and not) than anyone else on Earth. The shock was that no one had done it sooner. You piss off lots of violently inclined people and they retaliate. Someone was bound to succeed. Loving your country shouldn't mean thinking it's somehow magically immune from the realities of the world. I had the same frustration and impatience with the people in shock that "such a thing as this could happen on American soil!" that I'd had 15 years before.

Edited at 2016-02-08 06:12 am (UTC)
b1uemorpho
Feb. 9th, 2016 02:47 am (UTC)
Wow, I had nearly forgotten how we thought about nuclear annihilation. We really did just sort of take it for granted that World War III was definitely a thing that was going to happen and soon. I remember sitting around and having those theoretical discussions about what we would do if the missiles were on their way and there were too many people to fit in the fall out shelter, how would you decide who lives? And there was always the certainty (no one is as righteous as a teenager discussing theoretical ethics) that we would either sacrifice ourselves for others or just all chose to die as one because who wants to survive the nuclear apocalypse anyway? I need to remember this for the next time I'm tempted to scoff at how melodramatic "teens today" are. :-)

(Sorry for being all weird and macabre on your LJ, wiliqueen! Your original post was lovely.)
wiliqueen
Feb. 9th, 2016 02:53 am (UTC)
Hee! Thank you, but it's fine. :-)

I didn't assume the nuclear annihilation would happen, but I did reach the conclusion by about 13 that if it did, I'd never know it, being ~75 miles as the crow flies from Cheyenne Mountain.

For some reason, people found it very unnerving when I mentioned that at the time, so I didn't very often...
neadods
Jan. 30th, 2016 01:46 am (UTC)
They are immortal, but they should be home.

That's beautiful and perfect.
wiliqueen
Jan. 30th, 2016 02:07 am (UTC)
Thank you. <3
lyssie
Jan. 30th, 2016 02:58 am (UTC)
It's funny, I know I've talked about it before--we were living in Mims at the time of the Challenger accident. I saw it live, standing on our front lawn, and it still shocks me when I remember it. Because that sort of thing just wasn't supposed to happen. At all.

Out of curiosity (I don't think I've watched the footage since that day), I youtubed it, just to see. And while there's impact, it's not the same as it was, standing on the grass with dad telling me there was something very very wrong and that he was probably going to be called in to work (and he was crying. It was the first time I remember my father crying).

And that it's been thirty years? I am reeling at the thought (I mean, aside from just feeling amazingly old).

Thirty years since space was the awesomest--oh, it came back and it's awesome, but this impacted in the way I'm sure some of the earlier accidents (Apollo's) had probably impacted children of that generation. For me, the space program has always been tempered with Challenger. It's no longer the best and amazingest, and that makes me sad.

I wanted to go to Mars by now, dammit. (Young Astronauts totally lied to me, and I didn't get to join the space program at sixteen. :/)

(and sparking off this, I've got my own post to finish babbling on, otherwise, this would be a three-comment comment, probably)
wiliqueen
Jan. 30th, 2016 03:11 am (UTC)
I had forgotten, but I remember you telling me that now. That just... wow.

I'll look forward to reading your post. :-)
maiac
Feb. 1st, 2016 12:40 am (UTC)
A couple of months ago, I saw an IMAX movie about the space program. It was mostly about developing a mission to Mars, but it included some history.

Yes, it included the Challenger launch. And when I watched that plume go awry, I cried. Thirty years, and I still can't think about it without crying.
wiliqueen
Feb. 1st, 2016 10:43 pm (UTC)
Hard not to. {{{hugs}}}
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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