In January of 1986, I had long since given up my childhood dream of becoming an astronaut.
I was self-aware enough by then to know that I didn’t have a head for (or an interest in) advanced mathematics, and I also knew I didn’t have the proper temperament for (or interest in) a military career, both of which were still prerequisites for the job at that time. I was sixteen years old, a junior in high school, recently enfranchised with my driver’s license and loving the new-found freedom; my dreams at the time were focused on far more immediate and prosaic matters, mostly involving fuzzy pink sweaters and the things that lay beneath them. Oh, I remained interested in space exploration, of course. I was still collecting newspaper clippings about the latest missions, and I was still a total nerd who was convinced that humanity was going to spread beyond this Earth to other planets and moons and asteroids, and maybe even take up residence in the dark spaces between by constructing massive “O’Neill colonies.” Moreover, I was (mostly) certain all this was going to happen in my lifetime, and that it would, naturally, grow out of the space-shuttle program… in time. Even though I knew I’d never be a shuttle pilot, I figured I would at least get the consolation prize of spending the occasional weekend at an orbital hotel… no doubt with a pretty someone wearing one of those fuzzy sweaters. (Funny… I remember thinking I’d be enjoying those weekends by the time I was in my mid-40s or so. You know, now.)
However, I hadn’t actually watched a shuttle launch in several years. What was the point? They were all pretty much the same old thing; fifty times we’d fired those birds into the black… fifty times they’d come home without any major problems. It wasn’t a big deal anymore. And really wasn’t that the point of the space shuttle? To make space travel as mundane as catching a commuter flight to Denver? That’s what I’d been told in all the breathlessly optimistic pop-science magazines and non-fiction works of “futurism” I’d devoured in my younger days. I loved the shuttles — I thought, and still think, they were elegant machines, spaceships that landed like airplanes, the gleaming stuff of science fiction — and yet by January of 1986, I completely took them for granted. I think a lot of other people did too…
Mid-morning, January 28, 1986.
I was in my eleventh-grade creative-writing class. The bell to begin the class period had just sounded, but everyone was still shuffling about, talking, laughing, not yet settled. And in walked this kid whose name now escapes me, a senior who I remember wrote a pretty nifty science-fiction teleplay that ended up being published in the yearbook later that spring. I don’t recall his name, but I can see his face as clearly as the computer monitor on which these words are appearing. Curly hair, blue eyes, a few random sprouts of facial hair… and a thousand-yard stare that made him seem much, much older than any high school kid has any right to be. Somebody asked what his problem was, and he replied in a soft mumble, “The shuttle just blew up.”
We didn’t believe him, of course. Somebody may have even laughed, thinking it was a really bad joke. And the kid said it again, “The shuttle blew up.” Not long after that, the PA speaker in the corner popped and the voice of our school principal confirmed the news. Space shuttle Challenger was gone, destroyed a mere 73 seconds into her tenth flight, the 51st launch of a space shuttle. My principal sounded like that classmate of mine looked… old and tired.
The rest of that day is a haze. As I recall, school remained in session, but nobody bothered much with classes. No attendance was taken, and I doubt anyone made any serious effort to teach, or to learn. There were televisions set up in the media center, the physical heart of the school, and everyone in the building wandered past them at least once to see some of the live news coverage. I stood and watched for hours. I saw teachers and adult authority figures weeping. I saw cheerleaders and cool kids who hadn’t ever set foot in a science class shaking their heads in disbelief, as numb as any of the nerds who actually knew about this space stuff. The awful video replayed over and over, all day long. It’s seared into the memory of an entire generation. The blast-off, the gleaming white-and-orange spacecraft leaping into a blue sky… and then the words “Challenger, go at throttle-up” over the radio, followed by a burst of static and an eruption of smoke where the external fuel tank and the orbiter were supposed to be, and the solid rocket boosters still burning, still thrusting, arcing out and away from the destruction, still blindly trying to claw their way toward the blackness above.
“Challenger, go at throttle-up.”
Even now, years and decades later, those words, spoken so calmly, so routinely, raise a lump in my throat. I never watched another shuttle launch where I didn’t find myself tensing up at that moment approached, a muscle tightening in my jaw as I heard other voices call out the same point on the checklist — “go at throttle-up” — and then breathe a sigh of relief as the ship kept going. Even now, with the shuttle program ended and the surviving orbiters taxidermied and on display in air museums around the country, I can watch old recordings and experience the same sensations. A mild case of PTSD, perhaps? I wouldn’t be surprised. I don’t know if people too young to remember that day can understand just how traumatic it really was. Just as, I suppose, the people of my generation can never really understand the emotions unleashed by the Kennedy assassination.
The people in charge held their boards of inquiry and figured out precisely what happened. Steps were taken to correct the errors that led to the deaths of seven people, and the shuttles flew again. They flew a lot, actually, 135 total missions, including the ill-fated one Challenger didn’t have a chance to complete. And they accomplished some great things — notably, the Hubble telescope and the International Space Station — before finally being put to pasture. But nothing was the same after Challenger. A nation’s pride died along with those seven brave souls aboard that orbiter, and our post-Apollo swagger, too. A timidity infected every discussion of manned spaceflight after that. An air of futility. And once we lost Columbia as well…
It still troubles me that the shuttles retired under a cloud, with many people thinking they were dangerous lemons, and a three-decade-long misstep. And it also bothers me that the future I used to believe in — the future of moon bases and Mars colonies and giant cylindrical space habitats — has receded even farther into the distance ahead of me than the eleventh grade has slipped behind me. I still believe that human beings are explorers by nature, and that we may one day spread out into the universe beyond this little rock. But I no longer believe it’s our destiny to do so. I have a lot of doubts that our species will be smart enough, or brave enough, or just plain lucky enough to actually do it. Too many people think it isn’t worth the risk, or can’t imagine a big enough return on investment, or don’t believe it can be done or just plain don’t care. It certainly won’t happen in my lifetime. Honestly, I think I’ll be lucky if I live long enough to see any more human footsteps on the Moon, the ambitions of Elon Musk notwithstanding.
This loss of faith, the death of my childhood, really, and of a certain innocence and naive optimism… it all began unraveling on January 28, 1986, with the words: “Challenger, go at throttle-up.” Thirty years haven’t dulled the sting of those words, or the trauma of losing the tomorrow we should have had, the brass ring we were reaching for and just couldn’t quite manage to touch…