Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Surly Bonds of Earth - 30 Years Later

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, from their official November 15, 1985 photograph. In the back row from left to right: Ellison S. Onizuka, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

President Ronald Reagan
Address to the Nation after the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
January 28, 1986

Mrs. Juniper was three-feet seven inches tall, soaking wet. She was in charge of the 'Audio-Visual' Department in our high school, which consisted of a couple of televisions and three or four VCRs. Still, she took her job seriously and - considering some of the other teachers who graced those halls - she was benign. 

On this day, she'd set up in the A/V Room a television and seating for 30-40. She was showing the live broadcast of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger and anyone was invited to watch. It was my lunchtime and it had been my intention to watch the launch, as a 'civilian' was going into space for the first time, teacher Christa McAuliffe. 

I got delayed, however. Thirty years later, for the life of me, I can't remember what delayed me. Considering this was during the final two years of my high school tour of duty - which were the only two years that are worth remembering - I'm guessing it wasn't because someone knocked me out in the hallway, or because I was having a gastrointestinal emergency.

Whatever it was that delayed me, I was in a room adjoining the A/V area, with about a dozen other teachers and students, when Mrs. Juniper opened the door to the room and breathlessly screeched, "IT EXPLODED!" Everyone in the room knew what Mrs. Juniper was talking about - we all knew that watching the live broadcast of the Shuttle launch was something that Mrs. Juniper had really wanted to do - particularly because Mrs. McAuliffe was a teacher.

The room went silent. We all stared at each other. Until 9/11, all of us in that room thought we were living through our own, once-in-a-lifetime, "Where were you?/JFK Assassination"-moment. I can still see the expressions on the faces of the others in that room, even if I can't make out the identity of those faces.

We all rushed after Mrs. Juniper, who by now was sobbing, and followed her into the A/V Room to watch the rest of the broadcast. There had been about two dozen students who had been sitting in the room when the Challenger exploded. I was able to glean from them a bit of what had happened. What I remember is how guilty more than a few of them felt: "I was cheering!" one girl told me incredulously. On the TV screen, it hadn't been at all clear initially that there was anything wrong and many in the classroom were still clapping in approval of the launch when a camera panned to McAuliffe's parents - Ed and Grace Corrigan - in the observation area; her mother's head was buried in her father's arms and that was the first indication to most viewers that something was wrong. 

Almost immediately it was announced that there had been an "incident". By the time I got to the room, it was being broadcast that there had been an explosion but that there were reports that the cabin had successfully jettisoned the rockets and that a search party was en route to the suspected landing area. That momentary grasp at straws lasted only a few minutes before it was clear that there would be no survivors.

I don't recall much of the rest of the day, other than waiting to hear from President Reagan from the Oval Office that night. Such a different time. Before the Internet. Before cell phones. Hell, I didn't even have cable television in my section of Philadelphia in 1986. Such a different time. It actually mattered that we hear from the President. It meant something. And that's not a criticism of our current or past presidents since Reagan. It's just a statement of fact that - before the 'information age' - we looked to our President in a much different way than we do today.

Whether you were/are a fan of Reagan or not, one thing that I think is indisputable is that his finest moment was in those brief comments he made that night. Somber. Reassuring. He was, that night, someone we needed to hear from. To know that we'd be ok.

Such a different time.

Nowhere was it more clear that the world was different than to flash forward 17 years - after 9/11 - to the crash of the Space Shuttle Columbia on February 1, 2003. When the Columbia crashed, our first thought was terrorism; in 1986 that possibility didn't even enter our minds. The thought that some under-sexed thugs in a fifth-world country could shoot our Space Shuttle out of the sky was as foreign to us in 1986 as the thought that airplanes could be turned into missiles.

A different time indeed.

The number one song on January 28, 1986, was Dionne Warwick and Friends with "That's What Friends Are For." The number one movie at the box office was The Color Purple. And the number one television show was...The Cosby Show.

The Cosby Show

A very different time indeed.

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