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Friday, January 28, 2005

News: Remembering the Challenger 

Nineteen years ago this morning I remember sitting in Ms. Corman's math class, disappointed because we had not been chosen as one of the third grade groups to go to the library and watch the space shuttle Challenger blast off.

The previous week we had learned about NASA in our social studies class, and how a woman named Christa McAuliffe was going to be the first teacher to travel into space on the upcoming Challenger mission. Maybe it was because we were still in the midst of the Cold War and the space program was still a shining beacon of American exceptionalism, but all of the teachers in our school took pride in the fact that a fellow educator had been designated for such an honor.

I remember seeing the other classes walk down the hall toward the library, all of them buzzing about getting to see the shuttle make its way into the heavens, and feeling awful that I couldn't see it, too, as I had taken an interest in the space program before we ever learned about it in school.

Then, just a few minutes later, I remember seeing those same kids walking back by, with horrified blank stares on their faces. The teachers had the same expressions. Ms. Corman walked out into the hall to find out what was wrong, and one of the kids blurted out, "the spaceship blew up."

I couldn't tell you what we studied the rest of the day, or if we did anything. But I can recall with great clarity what a third grader looks like after seeing a seemingly indestructible marvel of modern engineering explode in mid-air. I can also recall the maudlin look my homeroom teacher, Mrs. Lightsey, gave me as I left that day. I told her that I hoped we found the astronauts alive, and even though she knew better, she tried to reassure me that there was hope for their survival.

Nineteen years. It's hard to believe it's been that long since the Challenger's crew lost their lives. I suppose that on the eve of the Challenger disaster, people were saying the same thing about the Apollo I tragedy, which had happened nineteen years ago that day.

Though I'm not old enough to remember Apollo I, I'll never forget the Challenger, or Christa McAuliffe, or the other six brave astronauts that gave their lives in the pursuit of discovery and exploration. President Ronald Regan said it best when he addressed the nation that evening.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'
After the tragedy I also remember critics clamoring to shut down the space program. I'm glad that they did not succeed. John Kennedy considered space the "new frontier," and said as much in his 1961 inaugural address. He was right; Americans are not a stagnant people. We're at out best when we strive for new heights and take on new challenges.

The space program represents all of the characteristics that best embody the concept of America. President Kennedy knew that, as did President Reagan and now President Bush. It's important to continue to look toward the heavens, seek new knowledge, and yes, even explore new worlds. The crew of the Challenger knew that, and as we remember their loss today, let us also celebrate their boldness, courage and patriotism.


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