Thirty years ago, I was in second grade. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was my last year at the elementary school that I attended and lots of change would be coming over the next several years for me. Thirty years ago, I was young and didn’t believe that bad things could happen to me, to anyone I knew, or to my country. Thirty years ago, I had my innocence and it was a great state to be in.
On January 28, 1986, I was playing on the playground during morning recess and a friend came up to me and said, “the space shuttle exploded.” My first response was sheer incredulity, that he was testing me, to see if I would react… I said, “No, it didn’t, the Space Shuttle CAN’T explode.” I didn’t believe that such a thing could even happen. Space travel was routine, with the first shuttle launch just after my third birthday and the 25th scheduled for that morning. My friend replied, “yes it did, as it was launching this morning.” I still didn’t believe him. I couldn’t grasp that an event such as this was even possible.
From there, in my memory, that day becomes a big blur. The next thing I remember is being at a different friend’s house in the evening working on homework. The adults were in a different room, doing adult things. The room we were in had a TV, which was tuned to the news. They were showing Challenger’s 73 second flight over and over and over again. I’m sure that there were talking heads interspersed between the replays, but all I remember are the replays, over and over again. Looking back now, that was the beginning of the end of my innocence. The end of the belief that bad things couldn’t happen.
Every year, in mid-January, I post four pictures on my office door. The first is the Apollo 1 Crew, the second is the STS 51-L (Challenger) Crew, the third is the STS-107 (Columbia) Crew, and the final is a Red and Rover cartoon by Brian Bassett commemorating the aforementioned crews that all lost their lives in service of exploration. I picked these pictures of the three crews because I think they represent the potential of the missions. Each crew is in their space suits, seemingly ready for launch, ready to being their exploration. I post these cartoons no later than January 16th, my birthday, which is the day that Columbia and her crew launched on their final mission in 2003. It’s also the day that the damage that caused Columbia’s demise occurred, though it would not happen for another fifteen days.
Last night I watched a wonderful documentary about the Challenger accident. The documentary focused not on the technical details of the accident, but on the reactions that people had to it. I was particularly taken by the audio of a reporter from Concord, New Hampshire, who was at KSC reporting on the flight because of its most famous crew member Christa McAuliffe. His station played several minutes of his spontaneous reactions to the incident, and at one point, he basically says, “I can’t talk any more. I’m in shock, I need to process this…” at which point I can imagine his dropping the phone he’s been talking in to and walking away. This struck me because it’s how I’ve been feeling since I posted those four photos on my office door.
Today, in 2016, my son is in second grade. He attends the same school that I did on that fateful day in January 1986, and though it’s been rebuilt, he plays on the same playground that I was playing on thirty years ago when I learned the news of the Challenger disaster. For some reason, this parallel, this coincidence that came about because he was born in my thirtieth year and started kindergarten when he did, has been bothering me this week. Ever since I put up those photos a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about my experience on the playground thirty years ago. I’ve been thinking about the beginning of the loss of my innocence and the changes that would occur in my life. I feel like spaceflight, to most people is again routine and the fact that there have been astronauts in space for nearly twice my son’s lifetime is taken for granted (if it’s even known) by most people. I feel like so much of the technology that we use on a daily basis, most of which was developed directly or indirectly as a part of the space program, is taken for granted.
My son is fully ensconced in his innocence and I work hard to protect that for him. I wonder what he will look back upon some day as the beginning of the end of his innocence. I hope that it will not be for a long time. I hope that I won’t be a cause of the beginning of this change in him. This year and ever year, I choose to remember the crews of Apollo 1, STS 51-L, and STS-107 in their flight suits, looking like they’re headed to the pad to launch into space and explore our universe.
I choose to look at them with the innocence of a child, knowing that it is not possible for anything to go wrong. I know that this is not true, I know that complacency and apathy will create problems for my country and my world. I just hope that my son won’t realize this for a long, long, time. I want to remember him like this, full of promise, full of innocence, and full of potential. I want all kids to have a look like on their face like my friend Shannon Moore‘s daughter Sara does in this picture.