Twenty years ago today, America experienced a national loss. We mourned the loss of
Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.
Brave heroes indeed. Just 73 seconds after lift-off, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
What made this tragedy especially heartbreaking was that America had never lost an astronaut in flight. Additionally, there was the matter of Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher who, according to her biography, completed an 11-page application and was chosen out of a pool of 11,500 applicants.
An ordinary person – to whom ordinary people could relate – doing the extraordinary. She was a Girl Scout leader, a jogger and a swimmer and married with two kids to her high school sweetheart.
When Christa began training in Houston in September of 1985, numerous media stories were written and continued to be written about her 114 hours of training.
Growing up, many of us have moments that until you’re very old and gray you remember as if it was yesterday, you remember where you were, what you ate and who you were talking to. If you were in grade school or high school in 1986, the Challenger disaster was likely one of those moments.
The Blogger’s Apprentice was in first grade and recalls this moment so vivdly because it was his first real memory of Ronald Reagan. It was quinticential Ronald Reagan too: he was strong, comforting and optimistic all at the same time.
Indeed, in Reagan’s speech he assured America that, “Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.” After phoning the grieving families of the astronauts they all encouraged them that the best rememberance of their loved ones would be to continue space exploration.
But for many space did seem like a dead end and Reagan would not have any of it.
Indeed, McAuliffe noted prior to her launch that, “A lot of people thought it was over when we reached the Moon. They put space on the back burner. But people have a connection with teachers. Now that a teacher has been selected, they are starting to watch the launches again.”
Every school in America watched it. At Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in Carmel, Indiana, the launch was scheduled during recess hour, but televisions were wheeled in the common area for all to watch in excitement-which in 72 seconds later during to grief.
President Reagan offered you a shoulder to cry on for everybody hurt that day; but especially the young. In his address to the nation Reagan said,
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s take-off. I know it’s hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
It was indeed painful and also eerie that a disaster like this would almost 19 years to the day that Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee died on January 27, 1967 when fire swept through the Apollo spacecraft designed for a manned flight to the moon during rehearsals at Cape Kennedy.
We lost these brave men on the ground. But up until this point, we had never lost anyone in flight.
It was also on this day some three hundred and ninety years earlier that the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama.
And four days from today, we will also remember three years ago the passing of Colonel Rick Husband; Lt. Colonel Michael Anderson; Commander Laurel Clark; Captain David Brown; Commander William McCool; Dr. Kalpana Chawla; and Ilan Ramon, a Colonel in the Israeli Air Force who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia.
For the families of all these tragedies, President Reagan surmised America’s grief well in 1986 when he said,
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “Give me a challenge, and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
As Reagan noted in his autobiography, “An American Life,” “It became one of the hardest days I ever had to spend in the Oval Office.” At a memorial service three days later, he added that it was difficult to say much, “all we could do was hug the families and try to hold back our tears..”
At that memorial service, Michael Smith’s widow handed President Reagan a card which had a quote from H.G. Wells that Captain Smith had planned to read in space. It said,
For man, there is no rest and no ending. He must go on – Conquest beyond Conquest. This little planet and its winds and ways, and all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him, and, at last out across the immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the depths of space and all the mysteries of time – still he will be but beginning.
Today we remember the Challenger Seven. Innovators, heroes all of them who, twenty years ago this day, “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”