For my mother’s generation, the “Where were you when...?” question was most likely about the assassination of JFK. For the generation younger than me, it was 9/11. For me, it was the fall of the Berlin Wall. And the Challenger tragedy.
Anyone born after these events will never know how they changed our world view. They can read about what the world was like prior to any of these events but they’ll never know what it was like to live in it. Yes, this is reasonably true of all history before a person’s time on this Earth but the above events are notable because they caused instant change in perspective.
For me, the space shuttle was filled with the promise of a different future. It was the aspirational symbol of humanity reaching greater heights with optimism and energy. And it was something which, as kids, we took for granted. This was our world, our time, reaching for the stars for a better tomorrow and pushing toward the unknown.
The destruction of the Challenger was a gut punch to that optimism.
While an adult may have had a more pragmatic understanding of the process and risk involved in the shuttle missions, those who were young and interested almost took it for granted. It was The Great Scientific and Engineering Achievement. The pinnacle of our technological enterprise. It should have been immune to disaster.
Alas, it was not.
The Challenger had had a hand in challenging ourselves to reach greater heights. It was the vehicle for a lot of firsts. The first shuttle spacewalk, the first night launch and landing, the first black man in space. It was Sally Ride’s first ride. It was an historic spacecraft. So, when it came crashing down, it challenged our idealism and sense of hope. We had spent the years prior gripped in the looming danger of a Cold War turning hot and nuclear. For me, with an interest in international politics and military history, the Cold War threat was oppressive but the shuttle program was the era’s bright and hopeful counter.
So, while it may seem to those who did not live in those times as though this ‘tragedy’ was little more than the loss of a few lives in a mechanical failure, to those of us who came home from school to hear the news, it was more than just that. It was a blow to all the shuttle program represented.
Not the least of which were social issues. While there were women (one of whom was a passenger, teacher Christa McAuliffe) aboard, for me, this didn’t carry the same weight as Ronald McNair, a black man. He was a saxophone player who was to have recorded the first (formal) musical performance in space, decades ahead of the famed Space Oddity cover by Canadian Chris Hadfield.
And I say ‘black man’ because that’s how we viewed him in Jamaica. I’m not even sure if the term African-American had taken root in the US back then but certainly didn’t in Jamaica (and it never really has with me). Now, I’m not a black man, per se. My mixed heritage allows me to ‘pass’ despite its African content but that doesn’t mean I didn’t identify with him.
Moreover, my own mother (through her life in politics) had met him and had him endorse a publicity photo to me.
I’m quite sure he did that for hundreds of kids and adults and, as I matured, I realize there was no special connection to me. I was just a name a random person asked him to sign on a photo. However, that boy living with his divorced mom in Jamaica felt there was a connection. It was as though I had been touched by greatness. I had his photo up on my wall, facing the foot of the bed. McNair tucked me in to bed, watched over me at night, and greeted me in the morning. A father figure in two dimensions, whom I had never met but who nonetheless inspired me to do great things.
He represented the best of us who had to struggle through the worst of things, who had overcome humble beginnings from a disenfranchised people to sit at the height of human invention. And he’d signed that photo to me! He was, to my young self, a hero with bona fide credentials.
So, upon hearing of destruction of that shuttle, I am not overstating it when I say my heart was broken. I sat in my living room, alone, a latch-key kid, listening to the radio as the reports detailed the accident, hoping against hope that the next time someone said “There can be no survivors” someone else would follow with better news. Of course, better news never came.
It would take over a decade before I ever felt quite as shaken in my faith for the future. And, in truth, I do not know if I have ever been as optimistic for the world or for myself as I was before I heard the news of the Challenger’s destruction. It was my ‘day which lives in infamy’ and, with the demise of McNair’s promised saxophone performance, my ‘day the music died.’
Of course, I recovered and made a pretty good run at life in my ‘long journey to the middle.’ I’ve had innumerable moments and stretches of happiness and optimism since then. However, I was never quite the same as I was prior to that particular tragedy.
Seven brave astronauts died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. Looking back thirty years later, I think its fireball also consumed my childhood innocence.
Still we press on, though.
Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
— Ulysses, Alfred, Lord Tennyson.