Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger, 25 years

Most people my age, the number that shall not be named, remember the day the space shuttle Challenger fell to pieces. I went to school in Florida a mere 30 miles from Cape Canaveral. We routinely filed outside to watch the launch of each shuttle. Something you don't know if you don't think about it or have never experienced it, the watching of a launch is the perfect way to teach the difference between the speed of light and the speed of sound. When you watch the orb go into the sky and disappear you still have yet to hear the rumble of the engines. As you walk back to your classroom, event over, suddenly you hear a rumble, a pop, and the ground shakes. Pretty hands on stuff for a fifth grader.

My Dad would tell you my "dream" of being an astronaut never made sense. I am a people person. I am not an introverted scientist who can shut out the rest of the world. Somehow I thought my desire to be a pilot might steer me around the "boring" stuff, but the reality of joining the military, the structure, commitment, yada, always hate to admit your parents are right. It didn't stop me from going to space camp, though. Now maybe I had a few pipe dreams of Kelly Preston and Lea Thompson accidentally launching themselves into space, thank you "Space Camp" (the movie) but even staying on the ground we had a blast.

Spending a week walking through and studying what everyone at NASA works on was amazing. Playing on lunar rovers, practicing weightlessness and learning about scientific experiments kept us entertained. That is not to say I didn't turn it into my typical social hour. I made fast friends with a group of girls some of whom I stayed in touch with after the fact. A much bigger to-do in 1988 (two years after Challenger) as you actually had to write letters. Of course, now I just spent 15 minutes on Facebook trying to figure out if I could find her, but I digress.

The most amazing part of our timing was the lead in to the first launch since Challenger. I could go on endlessly about how Challenger changed my life view: made me hate reporters, think less of my teachers, become scared for my parents' mortality...things like that. But instead of focusing on the negatives, Space Camp brought me face to face with a feeling of hope and rebirth like I had never felt before. We were there in the summer of 1988 and the first shuttle post-Challenger, Discovery, was set to launch in September of that year on mission STS-26. We got to see it loaded onto the giant rolling machine that makes the epic roll out to the launch pad. Back in the day I could have told you exactly how long that journey is but I know the machine travels at a snail's pace and it took multiple days, maybe even weeks to get it from the assembly building to the launch pad. Seeing a shuttle in person, ready to go, amongst a group of people so excited was touching. Here was a program that had lost something so large and the people were not scared, they were excited to work and rebuild. They believed in a program that was bigger than them, bigger than Earth. It was in that moment I truly witnessed what thinking beyond your boundaries was and how it changed the scope.

Many believe to this day the space program was and is a giant waste of money. I choose to believe the government contracts run more costly than they should but we as a race are well served by thinking beyond our limitations. I wish I could jump on a rocket and float around space. I wish there was a colony on the moon, then maybe Facebook would be necessary. We create these terrific fantasies via movies, computer games, and television...but isn't that just a giant waste of money? Some of it is art, but most of it is not. Why aren't we exploring? There is more to see. Yes, it's dangerous. Yes, it's hard. But doing the hard things is what evolves us. Maybe if we spent a bit more time dreaming we would spend a bit less time blowing each other up.

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