Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challengers

The Space Shuttle program has an interesting place in my life.

In the late fall of 1982, one year before Sally Ride became the first woman astronaut, my dad took two of his girls (his youngest was just out of toddler-hood) to see the launch of STS-5, the fifth Space Shuttle mission.

And I remember it like it was yesterday. I was awestruck watching the Columbia accelerate to 17,500 miles per hour as it punched through the earth's atmosphere. After we could no longer see the rockets, we stood there, looking up, watching the steam and smoke and contrails dissipate. Then, we spent the rest of the day exploring the Kennedy Space Center.

Yes, I am the boy-like child on the left.

And, as we boarded the bus to return to the hotel, I made a decision. I wanted to be an astronaut.

Thirty years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff. I was watching that launch too.

For many people, they remember that day so vividly that they swear that they watched it happen. But, in 1986, cable television was in its infancy and hardly ubiquitous. The newly formed network CNN was the only station running a live feed of the launch. Hardly anyone actually saw it live. But, because of NASA's Teacher in Space program was taking Christa McAuliffe into orbit, NASA had arranged for the launch to be shown in thousands of schools across the nation. Most of the people that did actually watch the shuttle disintegrate were children.

And I was one of those children. I was in 8th grade and seated in our science classroom, watching the launch and listening to the audio from Launch Control. None of us had any sense of danger. No one yet knew what an O-ring was.

But even as barely-pubescent junior high kids, we did know something about those solid rocket boosters. We knew that they were built about 90 miles north of where we were sitting--in the small town of Brigham City--by a group of engineers from Morton Thiokol Inc.

Those same engineers that strongly recommended that the launch be scrubbed due to the unforeseen abnormality of extreme cold in Florida. They warned NASA administration that the Challenger might explode at launch.

It did not. It took a little over a minute to do that.

And, even after that day, I still wanted to be an astronaut. 

Then, on February 1, 2003, the Columbia Space Shuttle disintegrated upon reentry after a 16-day mission. I remember exactly where I was when I saw that the very shuttle I had seen launch 20 years prior was gone. I was in the post office, where the TV was showing the footage on CNN. The first Israeli astronaut died that day.

Two of the five Shuttles were gone. Fourteen of the 355 Shuttle astronauts have been killed. The odds of a catastrophic Shuttle launch is about 1 in 100. And if NASA had offered me a seat on the next trip to space, I would take it without a second thought.

Twelve years after the Columbia was scattered over Texas--34 years after I was first there--I found myself at the Kennedy Space Center with my dad. Again. Only this time, with my son and my nephew. And we were all so excited to be there. We wandered through the displays, took a tour up to the launch pad, and had lunch with an astronaut.

It was so amazing to see my boys (and that includes my dad) so excited about the exploration of space. We learned about the science of space. We learned about the challenges engineers face in their quest to rocket humans out of the atmosphere. We saw gigantic rockets and buildings with garage doors eight stories high. We found out really cool shit. (Did you know that all the "smoke" you see when a rocket launches? It's not smoke. It's steam from the water that is released at launch. And it serves a purpose. It absorbs the noise of the launch. A noise so great that--without the water--it would tear apart the launch pad.) We all came away knowing that the sky is no longer the limit.

And you know what? I still want to be an astronaut.

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