Major Malfunction Author: TriSecDate:01/30/2016 13:53:11
I was a little surprised by the lack of media attention this week for what should have been a major anniversary. I'll admit I don't watch much TV anymore, but even online I only saw a handful of stories, and most of those lumped together all of NASA's significant accidents...which curiously have all taken place within a six-day span. (01/27 - 02/01)
It's been 30 years, but of course I remember it like yesterday. I was in college at the time, attending the historic Bunker Hill Community College in Charlestown, MA. (In the shadow of said Bunker Hill, and on the site where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed, but that's another story.) This, of course, was the "before" internet days, so I was a little disappointed that I wouldn't be able to see the launch live. I can hear Bob rolling his eyes already, but of course Christa McAuliffe was from Framingham, MA (West of Boston). Ron McNair (MIT) and Greg Jarvis (Northeastern), also had ties to the area, so we were all pretty excited.
But nevertheless..I went off to school that morning, sat through all my classes, and when my time was up, I pretty quickly left the building to head over to Kendall Square to work. Somehow I missed hearing the news, and I'd presume I was listening to the latest Prince album on my walkman while on the bus. It wasn't until I got to a miserable little record store on Mass Ave that I heard the tail end of a broadcast on the radio...."And the Coast Guard is now searching for improbable survivors". In those few, brief, innocent seconds I had left - I thought a ship had sunk. Then the announcer went on..."If you're just joining us..." and like the rest of you, my heart stopped.
The rest of that afternoon was a blur. I remember it being a Tuesday, so on the way home I stopped at ol' Troop 61 for the comfort of a safe place and being surrounded by friends, something I would repeat 14 years later after another unimaginable national tragedy.
I missed the President that evening, too. I'll paraphrase Winston Churchill here: "Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the legacy of President Reagan lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, This was his finest hour."
A local TV reporter of slightly younger vintage than I summed it up perfectly enough; this was the day we all lost our innocence.
But in looking in that rear-view mirror this week, I also felt strangely disconnected from the events somehow. This is no less meaningful to me than the Kennedy Assasination was to my mother's generation, or Pearl Harbor before that. There is of course the elephant in the room, but think about how differently the events are handled now.
Challenger destroyed our illusion that space travel had become safe and routine - of course, the Space-Gods and their sense of irony made sure that lesson was driven home in the most public and visceral way possible. There was an investigation, memorials, remembrances....and then it slowly but surely faded out of our memories. Sure, for those of us that lived through it, it's as vivid as if it happened yesterday. But we don't jam it in everyone's faces every year.
Especially in a Presidential election cycle, that elephant just won't go away. As for me, Challenger still affects me in ways I can't comprehend. Even reading about it this past week produced a long, tired sadness and yes, an actual tear at one point. For years afterwards, my blood ran cold at the mere mention of the words "Roger, go with throttle up" during any ensuing launch. That one is extraordinary to me - with the shuttle grounded and in museums, and all the launches known to be safe on video - that still happens.
But like everything else, life moves on. It's something that happened in the history books for this current generation, and like all things it will eventually fade from living memory. Alas, it seems like even the crew's legacy is fading now too, with the dumbing down of America, and the increasing disregard our society has for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. As America's relevance on the world stage declines, it's just more evidence that those who sacrificed to advance our society have probably laboured in vain.