Today was the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
Considering that it is a major anniversary of a catastrophic event, I’ve been somewhat surprised at the response. Or, I guess I should clarify, the lack of one.
A quick search on Google News shows that it is being covered, but the world seems far more focused on the happenings in Egypt and the upcoming launch of Verizon’s iPhone. While the norm for most sites was thundering silence, I found one major exception in my RSS feed this morning, a photo essay posted on the Fox is Black.
Compiled by Alex Dent, it includes the footage of the explosion and is accompanied by a haunting model of the smoke plume. In closing Dent says, “Today is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. There are no words.”
When I first saw the images, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. I wasn’t sure what they were and I was puzzled. Then, after I reviewed a few more in the series, I recognized what they depicted, which triggered a reaction very similar to the first time I saw footage of the Challenger disaster.
When Challenger exploded, I was six years old. I was a first grade student in Ms. Deacon’s class.
I don’t remember if we were watching the launch live, or if it was a rebroadcast. But I remember seeing the footage and being very confused. I worshiped astronauts. I wanted to be an astronaut.
They were the people who walked in space, soared amongst angels, and saw the wondrous whole of creation. A type of demigod that routinely accomplished the impossible and most assuredly did not die. Or at least it seemed to the mind of a six year old.
Yet, Challenger was gone. Because of a faulty design, the shuttle exploded only 73 seconds into the flight, blown into a twisted white cloud of debris. The impossible had happened. NASA, the same group which had safely returned Apollo 13 to earth after having a “problem”, had seen its first casualties in space.
Unless you lived it, it is very difficult to describe the effect that Challenger’s explosion had on the mind of the country. It was shocking, traumatic, and no one knew how to respond to the news. We mourned the loss of the astronauts, but at the same time we also lost our innocence.
Indeed, even though it’s been 25 years and much of the immediacy of the trauma has faded, I’m still not sure that America knows how to respond to Challenger. Certainly, in addresses and eulogies, we speak of hope and the dreams embodied by the astronauts, but we’ve done little to further the ambitions for which they gave their lives.
For, the moment that Challenger exploded, so did a generation’s hope for reliable and safe access to space. By showing their fallibility in such a catastrophic manner, NASA demonstrated that no manifest destiny propelled man toward the stars, or even that the efforts of Earth’s best and brightest could be good enough. Predictably, there was outrage and careful investigation. We demanded to know why our heroes had been taken for us.
The results from the commission were not encouraging. Instead of a NASA populated by super-heroes and immortals, it uncovered an organization pockmarked by humanity. And, predictably, oversight and scrutiny of the shuttle program increased enormously. At the same time, though, resources did not. There isn’t a more effective way to kill an audacious dream by demanding the impossible, delivered at a budget price.
Which may be why I had such a mixed reaction to Dent’s photo essay.
I know that he is trying to restore humanity and understand how such a disaster could become abstract; but when I see the photos of Challenger, I don’t see an abstract event lost in the mists of time.
I think of the loss of the astronauts, a traumatized six year old, and the moment that a dream died. These are powerful and distressing emotions, which is why they should be balanced by the bravery of the astronaut’s lives. The people onboard Challenger embodied a powerful and inspiring vision, yet, evidence of that vision is absent from Dent’s essay.
Unfortunately, it is also absent form other public commemorations of the tragedy.
There is little hope that Americans will soon walk amongst the stars again, or that we even dare to propose bold things. In February of 2010, Obama killed the last vestiges of America’s manned space flight programs. Nothing has been yet taken its place. Instead, NASA has been transformed into yet another advanced research lab of the government; from an agency that does great things, to one that thinks about doing them. That is a tragedy, and a wholly unfitting memorial to the fallen.
Which, I suppose, is why I’m writing this essay. Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe sacrificed their lives in pursuit of discovery, and yet, that very sacrifice seems partially responsible for stifling American greatness.
Who are the great heroes of science and exploration now? Do names leap to mind? What titans of industry, art, science, and engineering propel us forward?
Or, do we tell today’s children that they can’t be astronauts, because astronauts don’t exist anymore? Have we let the fear of risk overshadow our ability to accomplish noble, great, or beautiful things?
I don’t know the answers to these questions, which scares me. What I do know, however, is that the questions need to be answered. Humanity requires explorers and adventurers. We rely on such to drag us, often kicking and screaming, into the future.
I think Reagan summarized it well:
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 …
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 the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”