Friday, February 1, 2013

We Must Still Boldly Go

On January 28, 1986, I was in seventh grade science class when some classmates came in and told us the space shuttle carrying the teacher had exploded during launch. They had been listening to the launch on the radio in band class. My science teacher was a bit rattled and didn’t want to believe what the students were saying until an announcement came over the intercom confirming that it was true. We filed into the lunch room that day and televisions had been rolled into the cafeteria so we could watch the news. We saw the explosion replayed over and over and tracked the pieces of debris as they streamed downward and splashed into the Atlantic. On the news that night, every minute of the newscast was filled with Challenger coverage. Even the weather report had a little space shuttle figure showing what the winds were like in different levels of the atmosphere and discussing temperatures in Florida that day, wondering if any environmental issues could have played a role.

After we learned more about what happened that tragic day, my science teacher talked to us about how the compartment the astronauts were in was in free fall for two minutes and 45 seconds before impacting the ocean at a phenomenal speed. At least a few of the astronauts survived the initial explosion, because three of four emergency air packs found had been manually activated. My teacher wanted us all to imagine what that would have been like, the short yet extended period of knowing what had just happened and what was surely to come. My class of 28 students sat quietly in their seats facing the clock and my science teacher sat up front facing out at us. We started a moment of silence as the large institutional clock’s second hand swung up to 12 and started ticking off the seconds. We sat mute, unmoving, with our eyes on nothing but that second hand and our thoughts on nothing but the astronauts locked in their fate. My teacher turned around after about one minute and thirty seconds to watch the clock with us. At one minute and 45 seconds he exclaimed sadly, “That is a very long time.” A couple students pointed out to him that it had only been one minute and 45 seconds and not two minutes and 45 seconds. At first he didn’t believe us, but when he saw all our nodding heads, he realized that the torture lasted even longer than we could stand, sitting there contemplating the fate of people we had never met. One of the girls in the class got up to grab a tissue out of the box on the teacher’s desk to dry her tears, and then we moved on to our lesson about different types of energy.

Seventeen years and four days later, on February 1, 2003, I was sitting at my computer on a Saturday morning while my husband was at work and my young son played in the living room. I was instant messaging a friend who is also a stay-at-home mom whose husband was at work that morning. I had CNN on in the background and saw the usual program interrupted as the words “Shuttle explodes over Texas” appeared on the bottom of the screen. I had been waiting to watch the shuttle landing that would be aired on TV. By this time everyone knew the dangers of launches, but landings seemed like relatively safe, low-power descents where the craft glided through the atmosphere to its airplane-like landing. But on this day the TV screen was filled with an image that looked like a large bright meteor breaking up in the atmosphere as it streaked downward toward Earth.

This late January-early February window of bad luck for the space program began before I was born. On January 27, 1967, three astronauts died during a routine ground test in the Apollo capsule after an electrical spark ignited a fire.

This earliest tragedy occurred when humankind was getting ready to walk on the moon, 384,000 kilometers away. The shuttle tragedies occurred on liftoff and reentry from the space shuttle’s normal orbit of 320 kilometers off the Earth’s surface. But now there isn’t much of a space program left. While the space station still orbits above us with a crew of five, we must rely on other countries to get astronauts there and bring them home. All the space shuttles have been retired. There are no replacement vehicles in the works. The US’s space program is creeping backward. A poll on January 29 asked, “Is human spaceflight worth the risk?” A surely biased group of those who visit answered with a resounding YES, earning 94% of the vote. But the fact is that we have to continue to boldly go where no man has gone before and venture toward other planets and eventually other stellar systems. Because in the end, it’s mankind’s only option against extinction.

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