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Friday, January 28, 2011

25 years after Challenger

It's one of those questions anyone over college-age gets asked every so often about this time of year: Where were you when you heard about Challenger? You don't have to ask, you know which mission being asked.

STS-51L was one of those missions that, with the exception of the planned teacher in space, received little news coverage leading up to the launch. I myself forgot the shuttle was supposed to even go up that morning 25 years ago today, and I'm a self-proclaimed "NASA nerd".

I was a Sophomore in high school, and was on my way to pre-algebra class when I walked through the hall in front of the library and in passing heard a student talking to another mumble "...space shuttle blew up!".

I was hurrying to get to class and thought it had to be some sort of joke, and missed the punchline. While in my pre-algebra class my mind kept going back to that remark. Was there a launch today? What was the mission? Who was going up?

We would go to lunch after 30 minutes in class, so we dismissed for lunch, and as I was eating, a classmate came up to me and said "Did you hear? the space shuttle blew up!"

"...and?..." I replied, waiting for a punchline. Praying for one...

"No, seriously, it blew up, the TV's on in the library!"

I spent a couple of minutes telling him it couldn't be true, but he said to go up and see for myself, so I did. I rushed through lunch (I think it was another one of our many "pizza pig-out" weeks we had, where they crammed pizza down our gullets all 5 days until we were sick of it) and hurried up to the library.

The TV was on ABC and they began another of one of the hundreds of replays shown over and over that day. All the students were silent and transfixed on the small screen as the events played out, and Challenger lifted off, rolled, climbed, accelerated, then disappeared behind a fireball, the SRB's separating apart, spiraling and wandering aimlessly out over the Atlantic.

The shock of watching 7 lives end on national television was a powerful moment. Right before my eyes I'm seeing history, and not the history I wanted to witness. And then, they show it again. And again. And again. And again...

I got home from school and turned it on CNN, and watched it, repeatedly, as I tried, like much of America, to find out what in the hell could have caused it. All we had to use for our amateur forensics was the one feed shown on NASA TV as it occurred. The launch replays from all the different angles we often see were never aired (that I'm aware) until months later and the only other video they decided to show was Christa McAuliffe's parents watching from the press section as their daughter was killed in front of millions.

That night, President Reagan addressed the nation (postponing the State of the Union address) and said all the right things we needed to hear:

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 their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."
I recall a very somber time those next few days, months, and years as NASA struggled to reclaim the respect and credibility of its days of going to the Moon. I followed the investigations, the accusations, and the blame game passed from one agency within NASA to another. I relived some of those emotions once again when Columbia broke apart 17 years later.

My father was there that day at Kennedy Space Center. He was driving a busload of tourists to the Kennedy Space Center and this was his 2nd launch. He knew immediately something was wrong, but many people, having never seen a launch in person before, thought it was the normal SRB separation and were cheering. He remarked it as one of the more surreal experiences in his life.

There will never be another vehicle like the space shuttle. It was a piece of science fiction turned science fact, and as NASA prepares to sunset this program, we are left wondering what the next step for our manned space program will be.

Going into space is a risky business, and these 7 brave astronauts (and all astronauts who are in the program) know that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong if not addressed properly. As Challenger took off on that cold January morning, they knew the risks involved.

The crew of Challenger will always be remembered for their bravery, inspiration, and most importantly, their spirit to achieve, excel, and succeed.

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