Space Shuttle Challenger - 1/28/86

As a futurist/sci-fi nerd kid, there were two ways one could've gone when it came to following the space program: rapt attention and obsessive cataloging of every development and mission, or a blasé acceptance of its ordinariness and general disappointment in the lack of "real" progress in every development and mission. By the '80s, I was in the latter camp.

In late 1985, when I was 16, things at my school were a little bit space-happy because the principal, Sr. Judy (yes, my school was run by nuns, though they were rather unconventional nuns), had applied to and was a finalist for the teacher-in-space project. She had a shot at being on the January '86 space-shuttle flight (she would ultimately lose out to Christa McAuliffe). So it became a thing, lots of NASA-based stuff being taught and a mock space shuttle was built for students to go on "missions," which would parallel actual shuttle missions and approximate some of the astronauts' experiments and other educational goodness as well as give the experience of living in a confined space for days, just like the astronauts—except for the pesky gravity, which kind of ruined a lot of the approximation stuff, but still it was a great thing.

I, however, was in some ways already living in the future, being a sci-fi nerd and Star Trek expert, and was even teaching a course on Star Trek to my fellow high-schoolers (based on a college course I read about that tackled philosophical and scientific questions and issues presented in the episodes). Space shuttles were old hat. Primitive, even. Wake me when there's warp drive.

So, on the morning of January 28, 1986, while most of the school was gathered around a TV and a "crew" was in the mock space shuttle, monitoring the launch of STS-51L, I wasn't with them. I was in a smaller room, with a group of a dozen or so others, introducing Episode 5, "The Enemy Within," ready to engage in a discussion on the makeup of personality, whether traits are inherently "good" or "evil," and whether one needs the unpleasant elements of humanity to be a functioning whole person.

Just as the transporter malfunctioned and split Captain Kirk into two people, someone burst into the room and said "the shuttle blew up."

It was a stark reminder that this old-hat, primitive stuff was still, in our real world of the 1980s, the frontier.

We abandoned the Enterprise for the day and I spent the next several hours doing what I could to improve the TV reception and follow along while the school debated whether or not to continue the mock shuttle mission (they did) and ponder Sr. Judy's good fortune at not being chosen for Teacher in Space. Also figuring out what O-rings were and trying to fathom why we depend on such fragile materials for things like a spacecraft.

Anyway, Challenger is in some ways my generation's "where were you when Kennedy was shot" moment; it arguably stalled NASA and set back space exploration for years, and remains a potent moment in personal history.

So. Here's to the crew of STS-51L. May we keep on exploring and advancing, and risking, out into the big black, boldly going where humans have yet to go.


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