I was eating my lunch in the school cafeteria when I noticed everyone in the room turning to look at the TVs. They were just recently installed and normally showing news or educational programs of little interest to those of us who wanted to free our minds of constructive thought for a while.
I knew the space shuttle was supposed to launch that day, but it was supposed to launch for several days before that, too. The novelty of hearing about a teacher in space was actually starting to get kind of boring. But apparently it was happening–I was seeing the smoke trail as it finally ascended.
It didn’t look right. It looked like it exploded. In fact, it did.
I don’t remember being able to hear much on the TV, or finishing my lunch, but I remember the first class I had after lunch: Earth Science. When our teacher came in, it was clear he had been crying. He didn’t talk about what had happened that day.
Not until I got home from school did I begin to fully comprehend the significance of what I had seen. This was one of those where-were-you-when moments that I had only heard about before, the kind of moment I should have hoped I would never experience again. But unfortunately those moments are not infrequent enough, coming about every twenty years or so. Titanic sinks. Pearl Harbor. Kennedy assassination. Challenger. 9/11.
The Columbia break-up in 2004 would seem to be of the same caliber as the Challenger tragedy. But Challenger was very different. Americans leaving this planet for work in its orbit had achieved nothing but success. Once their rockets lifted off, they were unstoppable. This time, for the first time, something stopped them.
Also for the first time, there was a civilian on board, and something appeared to have stopped that from happening ever again. She was a teacher. For those of us who were children or teenagers, or adults feeling like kids again, she was our teacher. This was a dream coming true before our very eyes. This was millions of dreams coming true. But then we woke up screaming and crying, shaken by an image that would be stuck in our brains forever, one I am not sharing again. Never before had there been a cloud that looked as menacing as that one, the rocket boosters zig-zagging away and making the whole thing look like some horn-headed demon in the sky. The dream was dead.
But then, as we always do after something hurts us, we came together. We healed. NASA quickly determined what happened and set itself again on the slow crawling shuttle-transport vehicle, on the path back into the stars. After some time to pay our respects to all the heroes we lost that day, we allowed ourselves to dream again. I even briefly allowed myself to consider becoming an astronaut: I had been terrified of roller coasters since I was little, but in my late teens I made myself go on a fast one, inspired by the even faster climb I could someday make into space. I found out I really liked roller coasters, after all.
I’ve been hearing a lot of quotes from President Reagan’s speech that night, after the explosion that cancelled our celebrations. But I keep thinking about something Kennedy once said:
We choose to [do these things] not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
Let us keep challenging ourselves, and reaching for the stars.