The Day of Remembrance
I remember January 28th 1986 very vividly.
That was the day, after a series of delays due to weather, an unusually cold stretch in Florida near Cape Canaveral, that the space shuttle Challenger launched.
It was immediately after the words “Challenger go with throttle up” that the shuttle exploded.
I didn’t see it happen on live television. I was in high school and every day I went to my grandmother’s house, just a block away from the school, for lunch. This day was no different. I walked into the house and the television, usually running whichever soap opera on one of only three channels available, was not running. Instead my grandmother asked if I’d heard what happened. When I looked through the kitchen into the living room at their console television, they replayed the explosion and I still remember the two booster rockets, who usually separated from the fuel tank and the shuttle running separately from the remains of the shuttle that were showering down over the Atlantic.
Years before, in elementary school, the entire class . . . every class . . . had entered the library and classrooms as we watched the very first space shuttle launch into space, live. It was a new era in space travel and it was like those pictures you saw of your parents watching Neil Armstrong take his first steps on the moon.
I was so bothered by the Challenger explosion I immediately went to the superintendent of our school when I got back from lunch and asked why we hadn’t been told the space shuttle had exploded? We watched the first one go into space, why in God’s name wouldn’t they tell us about this? I don’t remember getting a great answer, but what was he going to say? What could they say other than it happened?
It isn’t often that news events from my childhood have bled into my adult life but this is certainly one that has.
February 1st of 2003 I was at home watching the news when another shuttle lit up the sky, breaking apart. I was a news photographer and producer and I spent almost 24 hours wandering the piney woods of Easter Texas and Wester Louisiana. On a back highway my reporter and I had to slam on the brakes because a piece of the Columbia’s fuselage was lying in the middle of the road, the heat-resistant tiles charred and burnt. Somewhere, miles down the road, we were shooting video when down in the ditch next to us was a mission patch, like one you’d see on the astronauts’ uniforms, lying charred in the ditch next to what looked to be a seat harness. As we shot video a crew with a GPS locator and two red biohazard bags walked out of the woods.
I recently interviewed a former Shuttle mission specialist, Steve Robinson. “We knew it was dangerous,” Robinson said, “but we felt it was worth it, I still feel it’s worth it,” he told me. No shuttle had an ejection seat. If something went wrong you tried to adjust on the shuttle and that was that.
But there are also lessons from all the space disasters that have led to new things. In talking with Robinson and the head of human space development for Aerojet Rocketdyne, the newest NASA mission, the Orion, will have an ejection system. It separates the crew capsule from the rocket in a millisecond and subjects them to G-forces that can make them pass out but at the very least it’s a safety measure the likes of which their predecessors didn’t have.
Today I remember the details of Challenger, the o-ring that failed, the cold and frozen pipes that were pictured after the disaster, the people on board and the bravery every astronaut takes in going up into the dangerous vacuum of space. My superintendent took to calling me “astronaut” and “Spaceman” and “Astro-Dave” when he saw me because I was so distraught by the tragedy.
But maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.
The Challenger has sparked my curiosity, my career, and I knew things about the space program and the shuttle because of everything I retained from the Challenger. Now I see those brave men and women, have even met some of them, and Apollo-era engineers . . . and I get more giddy meeting them than when I meet politicians and TV or movie stars.
These are heroes, every one of these people brave enough to forge their way through the atmosphere as well as the people who build and engineer their way into space.
So it’s worth remembering both those who no longer can pave their way as well as those who continue to do it, in the air and on the ground. I talked with my kids about it already this week. We’ll talk about it more, I’m sure.