Monday, January 28, 2013

COMMENTARY: Challenger

For my generation, we marked our lives by where we were when President Kennedy was assassinated. For the next, the crash of the space shuttle Challenger was a keystone event. 

It was a cold, dry and windy day in Oklahoma City warmed by hope and anticipation.

For the first time in my career, I was going to see a shuttle launch live. I was working for the Oklahoma Historical Society as secretary to Mary Lee Boyle, the senior archivist, and we had a television set for the Oral History Program. We were all particularly hyped that Christa McAuliffe was going up as a payload specialist. Many of us followed the Teacher in Space Program that President Reagan announced two years before Challenger. Added bonus:  she was a History Major and a Social Studies teacher. Her mission was to teach the world about the new frontier.

We were all aware of the delays this mission faced as we crowded into the tiny equipment-filled office vying for a good spot to see the 19-inch color screen. We'd planned to see the flight on the initial take-off date just six days before on January 22, 1986. Nobody really anticipated trouble. It was a long time since Apollo I and NASA had twenty-four prior successful missions.

No big deal. I still had hope in my heart of going to the moon on American Airlines. Back in fifth grade, Mrs. Cowden encouraged each of us to write and get on the waiting list for moon-flight. At that time, I still had the card American sent everyone who did write.

The launch went fine. We were all cheering and high-fiving each other when the vapor plume split into two.

"What happened?" I asked. I'd come late to the party and didn't have a great view.

For a few hope-filled moments, nobody knew. Maybe this was a scheduled event. Maybe....

Then, the announcer told us the shuttle exploded. I remember tears springing to my eyes. Chris Bittle, the photo archivist, hugged me. I think Mary Lee and several others did as well. 

Christa had flown with our hopes and dreams and those were gone now.  In some ways, I suspect this was the beginning of the end for President Kennedy's aspirations for us. NASA took a long hiatus to make sure they were functional. The Columbia disaster followed and set us back even further.

All I can say is Rest in Peace--and rest in the star stuff where all life is conceived.

The seven crew members aboard the Challenger Shuttle seen from left: Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith, and Ellison S. Onizuka.

To watch CNN's live coverage of the Challenger take-off, follow this link:

Challenger Take-Off and Explosion

Rebecca McFarland Kyle, January 2013

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