Friday, January 28, 2011

Remembering Challenger

Today has seem folks across the internet offer moving tributes to the seven astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion 25 years ago today. Many have pointed out that this was the "Kennedy moment" for Generation X--one of those events that cruelly burned itself into our collective memories forevermore. I am no exception to this. At the time, I still aspired to be an astronaut, the harsh reality that my hopeless math skills effectively precluded me from realizing this dream having not yet burst this particular bubble. I was a sophomore in high school, in the chemistry lab waiting for class to begin when Tony Pierson wandered in from the hall with the awful news, leavened with the gallows humor "I guess this means teachers aren't meant to go into space."

Like many others, it took me a a while to process the news, and still longer to get over the shock. Disasters like this didn't happen to NASA--spaceflight was safe. Hadn't we proven that with the 24 previous flights? Now, with the hindsight of 25 years and much additional learning, I understand that it is inherently unsafe, and that hazard was compounded by the terrible, mind-bogglingly inefficient design of the shuttle itself (which I've complained about in previous blogs). At the time, however, I bought the hype and believed that the so-called reusable shuttles were getting the U.S. into orbit quickly, cheaply and safely. The disaster was a glass of cold water thrown in my face. I'm not certain, but I believe my dream of becoming an astronaut died shortly therafter.

A few years before, while I was still in junior high, I attended a summer camp Texas A&M put on at the Galveston campus. It's focus was space science (not to be confused with Space Camp put on in Florida) and it was run by June Scobee. June is an engaging, enthusiastic woman. The first day of camp she greeted all of us with a hearty "Howdy!" as all good Aggies do (although I have no idea if she ever took a single course hour from A&M). She won us science geeks over with tales of her introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. The next two weeks were an amazing behind the scenes look at the U.S. space program, and it took me many years to realize how privileged I was to partake. You see, June was married to astronaut Dick Scobee, and pretty much had an all-access pass to the Johnson Space Center. We spent a day with noted Russian space program expert James Oberg. Another day, we went to a NASA image processing lab and got to select some archival photo prints as a souvenir (mine was an orbital shot of the lunar lander Spider as taken from the command module Gumdrop). We visited the original, circular wet-F tank, which was housed in the converted centrifuge building. This was a work area, strictly off-limits to tourists. I loved that fact. We learned that the astronauts had a rubber shark they'd hide in compartments to spring out at unexpected times. When the shark eventually disappeared, as such toys are wont to do, a rubber alligator soon appeared to take its place. We visited and went inside the massive vacuum chamber, the door of which looks for all the world like it should be the entrance to Superman's Silver-Age Fortress of Solitude. I noticed, taped near the doorway of the room that housed this enormous chamber, a brittle, yellowing newspaper cartoon that appeared to date to the late 60s. When The Wife and I returned to the Johnson Space Center around '97 or so and took the official tour, I was delighted to see the cartoon still in place. Alas, the vacuum chamber is no longer on the public tour. But the best had to be meeting Dick Scobee himself. He was every bit as friendly, patient and enthusiastic as June. In my Hollywood-tinged view of space as a roiling maelstrom on non-stop action, I asked him what would happen if the shuttle were hit my a meteor and damaged.

"We'll fix it and come back down," Scobee answered.

"But what if you can't fix it in orbit?" I demanded, expecting to hear of some elaborate rescue mission with a second shuttle.

Scobee merely smiled. "We come down anyway."

So yeah, the Challenger disaster struck home for me. Scobee was my astronaut. And he was taken from me. My loss didn't compare to that of the astronauts' families, but awkward, geeky teens aren't known for their grasp of the big picture. I went back to that summer camp at Galveston several times more, but never took the space science track again. I don't even remember if they offered it after that.

I saw June just once more, years later. It was the 25th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, and I took my younger brother Jim to a Houston Astros game at the old Astrodome. They were giving out commemorative baseballs to the first 5,000 fans, signed by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (I know they were machine signed, don't be a party pooper). We got our baseballs, and in fact, I'm playing with mine right now. It's a little scuffed up from the kids playing with it off and on over the years, but I still have it. June Scobee threw out the first pitch. I remember she got a standing ovation. There was an introduction, and she said some words. I can't remember what, but I do remember choking back tears. I really wanted to go and introduce myself, and thank her for everything she did during that camp years before, but of course that was impossible.

Every year I remember, and every year I pray that someday we'll get it right before apathy sets in and we, as a nation, turn our backs on the stars. My eldest daughter professes the desire to be the first person to set foot on Mars. I hope there are no more disasters between now and then to wither her dreams.

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