Friday, January 29, 2016

30 Years Ago: The Challenger

Thirty years ago, yesterday, the American public watched the space shuttle Challenger explode in real time on national television.  Here is one of the broadcasts.  (Many others can be found on YouTube.)

Shortly after the explosion and the breaking apart of the shuttle and its booster rockets, it was clear that all seven astronauts aboard had died.

This Challenger launch had been followed closely by students because one of the astronauts was "the first teacher in space."  She had planned lessons to beam down to schools during the voyage.  Just about every classroom in the country had a television tuned in to follow the Challenger's liftoff and then -- unfortunately -- its spectacular explosion. Also televised were the reactions of people in the outdoor viewing stands at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, including astronauts' relatives as they realized that their loved ones were gone.

It remains one of those days people talk about -- "I remember where I was when the Challenger blew up."  Another is 9/11/2001, when news cameras filmed airplanes hitting the World Trade Center towers and the towers' collapse.

(Interestingly, when a second shuttle, the Columbia, crashed in 2003, also killing seven astronauts as their craft cruised toward landing, the shock was real but less personal.  The crew had not been seen on television just an hour earlier.  There were not images of their relatives' immediate distress.  Perhaps, also, NASA toned back its publicity efforts after Challenger.)

Several hours after the explosion, President Ronald Reagan gave a memorable short speech to console the country and put the event into perspective.  In it, he addressed himself specifically to schoolchildren, saying this:

               "I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's
         all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and
         expanding man's horizons.
               "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The
         Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

Contemporaneous reports suggested that Reagan didn't really "get" the speech the first time he read it, but he came around fast enough.  As a former actor, he had the chops to deliver the message.

The speech was written by Peggy Noonan, whom I think of sometimes as the Republican version of NY Times columnist Maureen Dowd.  They both write in an impressionist, associative style that is not my usual cup of tea.  Every now and then, though, one of them hits it out of the park.

January 28, 1985, was one of those days.

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