Friday, January 28, 2011

To boldly go where no man (or woman or Asian American or African American) has gone before.

Photo credit:  1986, Bruce Weaver, AP
 Driving to work this morning, listening to NPR, I heard a story on Ron McNair, one of the crew members lost in the 1986 Challenger explosion.  McNair, born in 1950, grew up in South Carolina, attending segregated public schools.  Challenger was his second Shuttle flight.  Ron was the second African American in space.  NPR spoke with his brother and his brother told how he and Ron grew up watching Star Trek.  He said that the real science fiction for them was trying to imagine blacks and whites and working side-by-side.  We have Gene Rodenberry to thank for that.  Star Trek started running in 1966.  I was eight  years old.  I grew up watching Star Trek, too. 

The Challenger crew included Mission Specialist Ellison S. Onizuka, (second Shuttle mission) the first Asian American in space.  Mission Specialist McNair  and two women, New Hampshire high-school teacher Pay Load Specialist Christa McAuliffe and biomedical engineer, Mission Specialist Judith A. Resnik,  second woman in space in 1984.  (The first woman in space was Sally Ride in 1983.) Commander Francis R. Dick Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, who was an experienced pilot, but Challenger was his first space flight.  McAuliffe beat out 11,000 other teachers to be the first teacher in space.  Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis beat out 600 other Hughes Airforce Corp employees for the opportunity to fly with Challenger. 

A space launch is an event that  school teachers take advantage of.  It is a huge opportunity to teach science in a real, factual, exciting, fun manner.  Teachers would have their students watch the launch on t.v.  Because a teacher was on board in 1986-  the first teacher to ever take part in a space program, nearly all teachers across the United States were focusing curriculum around the watch and tuned in with their students to watch on that day. 
All of us watching were shocked.  Stunned.  NASA had launched shuttles twenty-four times successfully prior to this launch.  The concept of failure was unimaginable.  We were all watching live- in real time.  The explosion took place after one minute and thirteen seconds.  A mere blink of an eye.  Normally, you watch a launch and you feel the exhileration and then the camera follows, follows, follows as the aircraft climbs higher into the sky.  With this broadcast, as the explosion took place before our eyes, we were stunned.  The horror of the explosion continues to cause me to feel sick to my stomach.

"The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute to slow the descent, no escape system whatsoever; NASA had skipped all that in shuttle development. Space travel was considered so ordinary, in fact, that the Challenger seven wore little more than blue coveralls and skimpy motorcycle-type helmets for takeoff.
In a horrific flash, the most diverse space crew ever — including one black, one Japanese-American and two women, one of them a Jew — was gone."  Full story found here.

A couple of gal friends and I were headed to Florida for Spring Break.  We were all married, in mid-twenties.  I was the only one of us that had a child.  We went to Cocoa Beach and on every motel and restaurant marquee the messages read
our hearts go out to the families of the Challenger crew.

The launch and subsequent explosion took place on January 28, 1986 and we were down at the beach for spring break - April.  The bars were crawling with sailors from ships, all in from Virginia Beach.  They referred to it as "VA beach."  They were on a mission- to clean up the debris from the explosion.  It was everywhere.  Pieces of tile littered the beach.  Did I think about picking one up and taking it home with me?  I suppose.  But it would be something akin to taking a piece from a car wreck when someone dies as a result of that wreck.  It was too macabre.  The sailors had a name for the debris - "space trash." 
The reminders were all around us, even three months after the explosion, that something terrible had happened.  And now, twenty-five years later, we remember.


KleinsteMotte said...

This post is eerie. Thank you for reminding me. It happened just after my crazy event in Saudi in Dec.

Fred Swindells said...

The first woman in space was Valentina Tereshkova in 1963: over 21 years before Sally Ride.

Blog Archive