Friday, January 28, 2011

Few Thoughts on Challenger

So today is the 25th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, and that seems strange.
On the day that it happened, I was still in middle school. I remember this kid named John Rauschberger (sp?) running up to me in the hallway as I walked to band class and breathlessly telling me that the space shuttle had exploded. As memory serves, he wore the sort of excitement and enthusiasm for a big, splashy, high profile tragedy that a troubling number of people probably feel, but only junior high boys are probably likely to openly express.
We got to class and our band teacher, Mr. Lacour, had the TV on in the band hall. The news programs were showing endless, looped fottage of the space shuttle taking off and then exploding shortly into its ascent.
We all sat and watched it a few times before out teacher turned the TV off and returned his attention to the class, saying something like, "Well, obviously that's very sad. Now everyone get out your music books and turn to page 16..."
The real awfulness of the flight was amplified considerably by the fact that Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire, had been included among the shuttle flight crew. The primary purpose of her inclusion, unfortunately, had been to sort of highlight the importance of education and to inspire students, teachers, and other people across the country who might be moved by the participation of an "ordinary civilian" on a flight into space. McAuliffe, in other words, was primarily on the flight in order to make sure that lots and lots of people were watching it. Accordingly, there were many more eyes watching this shuttle launch (such flights having become somewhat routine by this point) than might have been typical on any other given day.
I know that at my mom's elementary school the teachers had all turned on their TVs and were watching the launch with their kids. I remember my mom being excited before the flight about the idea that a teacher was going into space, and I remember her being really sad when she came home that day, talking about how awful it had been to watch the tragedy with the excited, enthusiastic kids from her class.
I guess the major lesson learned from the disaster was that cutting edge science and exploration almost always call for more bravery, courage, and even sometimes sacrifice than we typically think about. Our engineers, scientists, and explorers are often so good at their jobs that we sometimes get lulled into a certain sense of complacency about the risks and the constant possibility that something could go very wrong (when things go perfectly time after time it's easy to forget about what can happen when things fail). As much as we forget about the dangers, though, the Challenger astronauts were certainly very aware of the risks that they faced. Such things are drilled into them over and over during their training so that they can try to avoid problems and/or deal with them as they arise. They knew far better than the rest of us that really bad things can happen if any number of things go wrong. Obviously, though, those astronauts thought that the benefits of space travel and the knowledge that could be gained were important enough that the risks were outweighed.
So that's impressive. These days we forget about that kind of courage too often.
I mean, this isn't exactly a new point. In the pursuit of expanded knowledge, explorers of various forms have literally been taking risks on behalf of society since the dawn of time (I try to imagine being some kind of early explorer, climbing into a wooden boat and sailing out into a vast ocean without being sure of what you would find).
Still, sometimes we forget.
We celebrate and memorialize our veterans and our police officers and first responders and so forth, but events like the Challenger explosion wake us up and remind us that there are also a different sort of people are out there who are really putting their lives on the line for the benefit of all of us on a pretty regular basis.
Even as I write this there's a very good chance that there are people collecting data above me in orbit (maybe Americans, but also quite possibly Russians or people from other countries) or people exploring the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean in specially designed submarines. Test pilots fly experimental aircraft and spacecraft at the most extreme limits of human engineering knowledge. There are people out there who are risking their lives in order to advance our civilization, and these people don't always get memorials or days of remembrance.
But it's important to keep them in mind.
So that's all I've got. The Challenger disaster is definitely one of those "do you remember where you were?" sort of historical moments from my life, but it also marks something a bit bigger. Then and now it has always served as one of those moments that wasn't just a simple tragedy, but a reminder that heroism comes in many different forms.
Anyway, hats off to the Challenger crew, even 25 years later.

No comments: