My Many Interests

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Recollections of Challenger 35 Years Later

I don't know why I happened to be at home that day. It was my senior year and didn't have enough classes to go all day, I was usually home later in the afternoon. On this particular day, I had just gotten out of the shower and ran to the living room wearing only a towel to see the remains of a the fireball and wondered what had happened.

My love of space was kindled at an early age. I was born towards the end of the space race, just a year prior to the moon landing. In my first years I watched many an Apollo launch, the rise and fall of Skylab and the designing, testing and eventual launch of the first shuttle, Columbia, in April of 1981. Every article that my small town newspaper could publish found it's way into a scrapbook. I still have my original copy of THE SPACE SHUTTLE OPERATOR'S MANUAL published in October 1982, though it has definitely seen better days.

The space shuttle was my generation's spaceship. My love of the stars joined with the shuttle program and I made plans. I was going to join the Navy's Nuclear Power Program and get my degree in nuclear engineering and then go work for NASA building rocket engines. To me, there was nothing else. But after joining, plans changed over time and I lost sight of that dream.

Going back to that fateful day, though, I remember standing there, still damp from the shower and just staring at the TV. Just like millions around the world. Wondering what just happened. Surely, they're okay. Surely, we'll hear their voices in just a second. But those voices were never heard again. I don't think I got dressed until some time later. I don't remember a lot about the rest of that day, all I could remember was how that rope-like cloud of smoke just abruptly ended in a blue sky.

When Reagan spoke later that afternoon, I was still in a daze but the one thing that brought me out of it was towards the end of his speech. His speech writer was a lady named Peggy Noonan and in the speech she included an excerpt from a poem she remembered from seventh grade. Reagan's speech went like this - “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.'” The poem "High Flight" that gave this sentence life was written by a 19 year old John Gillespie Magee who died in a mid-air collision during WWII. 

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of … 

I still get misty-eyed when I read this or the speech excerpt. I still get misty-eyed every year when I recall this event. It affected not only America, but the world. These were explorers and adventurers expanding our knowledge of the world and universe around us. Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe.