I was 11 when the Challenger went on its last mission. It was one of those ridiculously sunny Florida days that made you forget that winter was even a thing. We were in a darkened Language Arts classroom, watching the launch on TV, all ridiculously happy because A) we didn’t have to do classwork and B) this wasn’t a normal mission. This time a civilian was going up with the crew. And not just a civilian, a teacher! Even as a sixth-grader, who was starting to figure out that girls were a lot more interesting than Transformers, I could appreciate how cool that was.
We all counted down gleefully with mission control. Cheered as the shuttle left the launch pad.
And then a minute later, everything went wrong.
We could hear the Social Studies class outside arguing over the cloud of smoke that had appeared at the apex of the contrail, visible clearly even from our vantage point on other coast. It was the boosters separating, they were saying.
But inside, in our classroom, we knew. We stared in mute shock as the announcers on TV tried to recover, make sense of what had happened. One of the girls to my right choked back a sob. Our teacher said nothing. Her hand to her mouth. Her eyes bright with tears.
The crew was gone. Christa McAuliffe, the Teacher Astronaut, was gone.
30 years later and I still find it hard to think about the Challenger disaster. The entire Space Shuttle program represented so much more to me than astronauts shuttling gear to space, or launching satellites, or running experiments. The men and women of the program were pioneers, pushing as far past the boundaries of human knowledge as they possibly could.
I had the privilege of visiting Cape Canaveral last year and seeing the amazing display building that NASA has built around the Shuttle Atlantis. But I needed time to compose myself after the introductory movie, after the shuttle was revealed. At the time, I thought that it was that memory of 30 years past. The loss of that brave crew that left such an impression upon a mind still trying to make sense of the world. Now I realize that I was mourning more than the loss of one crew.
That the Shuttle program is over, the vehicles decommissioned, it makes my heart ache. I miss those countdowns. I miss the double sonic-booms as the Shuttles would cross over Sarasota on their way back to the Cape. I miss the thrill of being on the edge of something new, watching as the Shuttle astronauts expanded our universe one orbit at a time.
It is my sincere hope that my children, or theirs, will get to experience that thrill; that awe at the unknown and the pride that we are the ones who are testing it. I’m reminded of JFK, his speech given in regards to our mission to the moon:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
Losing the Challenger crew was one of those hard things. Possibly the hardest. But it was important, because it ensured that future crews were safer, that we could still reach the stars. As we look to new planets, as billionaires strive in the desert to put space back within our grasp, I think back to a crew of six and a January day and my heart hurts a little less.
Because their sacrifice was not in vain.