Thirty years ago I was home from work, watching tv. It was around 1000am Tulsa time and I wanted to see the space shuttle Challenger take off. First of all, I am an inveterate manned space travel fan. I followed NASA’s work from the Mercury program and then to Gemini, then Apollo and then the to space shuttles. Outer space just gets to me, and I only wish I’d had the right chops to go.Second, I was hooked on the first teacher in space. I thought Christa McAuliffe was a remarkable woman. She was smart, charismatic, and a superb teacher. I imagined how wonderful it would be to watch her teach thousands, maybe millions, of kids about science live from space. Third, there was Judith Resnik, the first Jewish astronaut. I was so taken by this brilliant electrical engineer, a daughter of Holocaust survivors with real drive. What a remarkable woman to talk about in Sunday School with the kids. I also kind of liked the fact that she applied to be an astronaut on a whim. She had just gone through a divorce and was Essentially in a bit of a funk. Someone said that she should become an astronaut. So she thought, why not give it a shot – and they liked her. Resnik had already gone into space, but I was still cheering for her.
I will admit that I was subsequently really saddened to learn that Resnik hated the “first Jew in space” appellation. Despite a very Jewish upbringing including all nine yards of Hebrew School and a Bat Mitzvah, Resnik said that she wasn’t Jewish. But by me, she was Jewish, no matter how much she may have protested. I just wish I could’ve learned where her rejection came from.
I watched tv as the crew walked toward the shuttle. I loved that both McAuliffe and Resnik had Farah Fawcett hairdos. They were just so springy and young and so promising. I cheered them by calling out the mid80s version of “You go, girl!” As I watched them the camera cut to the VIP bleachers where the astronaut families and invited guests of NASA were waiting for the launch. It was so cold that morning in Florida; in fact, there were record lows. The spectators were all wearing parkas and thick winter coats. This weather anomaly in Florida would end up being one of the factors in the accident about to occur.
Th camera spent an inordinate amount of time on McAuliffe’s parents in the VIP area. They were An attractive older couple, so excited to ba a part of the day. I imagined how profoundly thrilled they were to see their daughter bravely making history.
At the launch, the rocket surged upward so beautifully in a scene that gets me every time. It still amazes me that humans figured out how to leave Earth in my lifetime, breaking the bonds of gravity with enormous power and energy. But then, 73 seconds later, without warning, the entire rocket broke apart. We watched in utter horror as everything went wrong. We watched Christie’s parents cope with the shocking loss of their daughter. We realized, later, that the unusually cold morning made the o-rings, the gaskets between the rocket stages, stiff and less flexible which in turn allowed jet fuel to spray over the stages below causing the flame up. We also learned later that people knew it was potentially dangerous to launch in the cold, but engineers were afraid to admit that there might be a problem. And then we learned that the astronauts, those brave men and women, didn’t instantly die in the air, but likely survived until their crew cabin hit the water at over 200 miles an hour.
Thirty years ago is a long time. I had so many dreams that day, and so many of them were dashed. So much was lost due to human error and worse, hubris. But I still give thanks for the crew of the Challenger and what they meant to me. I still feel beholden to them and their bravery. I just want to believe that we can still dream as a nation, to do great things together.