January 29, 2011

Remembering Challenger

January 29, 2011

Friday was the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, one of those awful where-were-you moments I remember as if it happened only yesterday.

I was working as a systems analyst for McDonnell Douglas at the Johnson Space Center. I was attending a training session, when one of the technical support people interrupted our class to make the announcement. At first, I thought he must be kidding. It took a minute to sink in.

Then, of course, I glued myself to the nearest television and, like everyone else, watched the terrible footage over and over again until my eyes ached. I went home and held my daughter in my arms while she cried.

Why were we so affected? Our across-the-street neighbor was one of the astronauts who died, so the explosion wasn’t something that happened to a bunch of strangers. It happened to someone we knew.

I remember him as a kind and quiet man, self-assured, easy with a smile and a wave. I wish I had gotten to know him better. His daughter often played at our house.

Clear Lake, a community on the far southeastern side of Houston where the space center is located, was like a small town. Everyone knew everyone else. And NASA was a major employer in the area, so we all lived, worked, and played together.

To lose seven members of what felt like an extended family in such a sudden and brutal way was devastating. We mourned their passing for years after.

Every January since, I remember Challenger—and the well-documented miscalculations leading to its last mission, reminders that ignoring physical facts in favor of public relations can spell disaster. Sending a teacher into space did not make the orbiter itself any less risky or vulnerable to vagaries of the weather.

Two things stand out for me today:

The children in my daughter’s school had gathered in an auditorium to watch the launch like they always did whenever “the Shuttle was up.” She can tell you exactly where she was when she first heard, and she still tears up when she talks about it.

One of my coworkers attended the launch. When he returned to Houston, he told us what it was like to be there. The onlookers were covered in black ash that stung their skin, and the silence afterward was nearly as deafening as the explosion itself.

Two or three Januaries ago, I got to thinking about what he said, and I wrote this poem:

       What you didn’t see
       was how grizzly
       the morning sky turned
       or how volcanic ash
       pricked our skin pink
       and settled
       into our hair,
       filmy human dust,
       like tears
       we didn’t ever want
       to wash away—
       ephemeral remains

       of the one explosive tick,
       the millisecond in time,
       transforming delicate, shiny
       metal skin,
       proud flesh and bone,
       into three garish, fiery
       corkscrews that spun
       out, a nitrous “Y,” not
       quite like a schoolbook
       alphabet letter
       but close enough
       to stick
       behind our eyes.

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