Memories of a Tragedy

28 years ago this week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take off from Cape Kennedy. I remember  one aspect of that that day very well: it seemed to me that everyone heard the news before I did. I was at lunch with a colleague, then in my car driving back to my office without turning the radio on. I sat in the office for an hour or two writing up a plan for a class when the phone rang. I was expecting a bat mitzvah student for a lesson that afternoon and her mother was calling to find out if I still wanted to meet. I asked her why. She said: “Haven’t you heard the news?”. That was how I found out what had happened hours before.

I mention this part of the story because one thing that I always think about when considering the Challenger disaster was how different life was even only 28 years ago. It would be absolutely impossible for someone not to hear the news almost immediately upon an event like this taking place today. We are bombarded by news and information in so many different forms and it would seem impossible to even imagine that so much time would pass before we would hear news.

But, that is just an aside. The most intense and important memory I have of that terrible day is the realization that what seemed so routine, so fascinatingly easy, was in fact terribly dangerous and unpredictable. Looking back that day, it struck me that the fact that this was the first time American astronauts had been killed while flying (remembering of course the tragic fire aboard Apollo 1 and the loss of three astronauts on the pad) was truly remarkable. While there had been “close calls” before, we had become accustomed to flights taking off and splashing down or landing and the astronauts, the heroes, climbing out perfectly healthy. This was such a shock but when looked at realistically, the real shock was that it hadn’t happened before.

These 7 brave men and women, including of course Christa McAuliffee, “teacher in space”, took such a great risk in the name of science and adventure and to this day, I can remember their names and see their faces as they appeared in the pre-flight photographs. They, as well of course, as the victims of the Space Shuttle Columbia are remember with respect and honor.

But, there is one other memory I have of that day and it is much more personal.

I remember thinking to myself as I watched the news that night: “Now, I will never fly in space”. I was 30 years old when I woke up on the day of the disaster and I honestly, truly believed that one day I would fly into space. Why not? Surely, the world was advancing technologically and while I never could have pictured a computer in my pocket or so many other advances of the 21st century, at that moment, I honestly believed that I would one day fly into space.

But, as I watched the news that night, I realized that space travel would never be easy, never be simple, never be available to all except the best trained and most daring, neither category applying to me. I realized at that moment that if I wanted an adventure, I would have to find it here on earth.

Losing those 7 brilliant men and women was a horrible loss to our nation and the world. But, I also felt a personal loss that day, not as important but every bit as emotional.

May their memory be for a blessing.

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