Touching the Face of God: Remembering the Challenger

What baby boomer wasn't obsessed with the space program? As a kid growing up in the 1960s I followed every Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launch with enthusiasm and wonder and created scrapbooks of the missions. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were cultural icons in my childhood the same way Elvis and the Beatles were. When the space shuttle program began in the early 1980s, it seemed to reinvigorate the passion we all had for manned spaceflight. But this new era was no longer dependent on the pioneering astronauts of my youth. Who knew? Maybe one day soon regular people like me would be able to travel in space.

Twenty-one years ago I was writing filmstrips for an educational publisher in Chicago called SVE. Now there's a relic from the past. "Please advance to the next frame when you hear the beep." SVE had several licensed characters that we featured in our filmstrips. The star of this group was the Lollipop Dragon, a kindly green beast who lived in the Kingdom of Tumtum with his orange dragon girlfriend Apple Blossom and his human friends, Prince Hubert and Princess Gwendolyn. I wrote many adventures for the dragon, addressing a range of curriculum areas from geography to music to math. The nadir of my SVE career was probably my 1984 homage to multicultural education: "Lollipop Dragon's Adventures in Ethnic Pride." I cringe at the memory of the dialogue I had coming out of Tumtum's African-American residents (something about Martin Luther King Jr.'s visit to Tumtum during the civil rights era) and I have a vague memory of Lollipop Dragon wearing a yarmulke and talking about Yom Kippur. Oy. In one of my favorite Lollipop Dragon filmstrip series, I was able to send Lollipop and Apple Blossom up in the shuttle as the very first civilians in space.

A few months later, I heard that NASA was following my lead. When I learned that a high school social studies teacher by the name of Christa McAuliffe had been chosen from over 11,000 applicants to be the first civilian to go up in the space shuttle, my childhood obsession with the space program was renewed. I read everything I could find about Christa's training, listened to her inspiring interviews, studied the lesson plans she would bring with her on the historic trip, and felt like I came to know her family members and her students in Concord, New Hampshire.

In January 1986, as the launch approached, I couldn't get enough of the Challenger coverage. I was disappointed each time the cold Florida temperatures delayed the mission. On January 27, I watched McAuliffe's husband Steven and their two children on "The Today Show," talking about how excited they all were for Christa. The kids, nine-year-old Scott and six-year-old Caroline, seemed thrilled that their mom was making such a ground-breaking trip and Scott was excited that his entire third-grade grade class had traveled to Florida to watch the launch.

On the morning of January 28th, we all stood around the TV set in the SVE conference room to watch the liftoff. It was still unusually cold in Florida but we were relieved that mission control did not stop the launch. I suppose if it hadn't been for Christa McAuliffe I might have been following the story of Judith Resnick, the Challenger astronaut who was only the second American woman to travel in space (third if you count Apple Blossom) and the first Jewish astronaut. The Challenger crew also included commander Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis. When they showed the seven astronauts about to enter the shuttle, my eyes were glued to the high school teacher from New Hampshire. Her smile was contagious, she seemed so terribly happy.

My heart was racing as the Challenger majestically rose from its perch at 9:38 Chicago time. The cameras kept cutting away to McAuliffe's mother and sister who were there watching the liftoff and live shots from Christa's former classroom in Concord. It seemed like a perfect launch, the Challenger rising in a beautiful straight line at Cape Canaveral and beginning to arch over the Florida sky. At first I didn't think anything of the strange double formations that formed around the shuttle's trail which was being closely followed by the cameras. It took me and the millions of people watching the Challenger several minutes to realize that some kind of major catastrophe had just occurred. It had never even crossed my mind that anything could happen to the crew of the Space Shuttle. Hadn't NASA proven itself over and over again, even when potentially catastrophic situations emerged during some of its earlier missions? The only casualties of the space program to date had been the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were killed by a fire on a launchpad in 1967.

When it became clear that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, I could only stare at the television in disbelief. It took my brain several minutes to catch up with what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing. At first there were some excruciating close-ups of the stunned and then grief-stricken faces of McAuliffe's mother and sister. Thank God that there was still a level of decency among news producers back then because when it became clear what had happened, there were no more images of the astronauts' families or the horrified students at McAuliffe's school. I remained frozen in my chair for hours, unable to turn away from the TV coverage. I kept hoping against hope that the cabin containing the astronauts had somehow survived the explosion and that they would be found shaken but alive off the Florida coast. As it turned out, the crew cabin did survive the initial breakup of the shuttle, but the astronauts were all killed, probably in the first few seconds after the disaster which we later learned was caused by a faulty O-ring in the rocket booster that had contracted in the frigid temperatures of that January morning.

I can't remember a news event that affected me so viscerally before or since. I couldn't even imagine the grief that the families and friends of the astronauts experienced as they watched the live broadcast of their loved ones' completely unexpected and terribly violent deaths. Christa McAuliffe felt like a friend, a colleague, and I still had the image of her trusting, excited husband and young children in my head. That night, in a national address, Ronald Reagan expertly delivered the famous words that speechwriter Peggy Noonan had borrowed from a World War II-era sonnet. Despite my huge misgivings about Reagan's policies and political views, I believed his sincerity and emotion when he said:

"We will never forget 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."

When the shuttle launches finally resumed in September 1988, I barely paid any attention. I am ashamed to say that when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth's atmosphere in February 2003, killing all seven of the astronauts on board, it didn't have anywhere near the impact on me as the Challenger disaster. I was unable to drop my cynicism of President Bush as he tried and failed to follow in Reagan's footsteps and comfort the nation that evening. His comments seemed hollow and he sorely lacked the oratory skills that Ronald Reagan had mastered. "These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly," Bush said in his emotionless speech, "knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life."

NASA has announced that it will be retiring the space shuttle program in 2010 and there's some talk about mothballing the shuttles even sooner. There are four missions scheduled for this year. One of these missions will carry a very special passenger into space. Teacher Barbara Morgan of Fresno, Callifornia, trained extensively with Christa McAuliffe as her official backup. On June 28th, more than 21 years after the Challenger's ill-fated launch, Morgan will finally make that journey as a member of NASA's 118th shuttle mission. "Yes, I'm excited," the now 55-year-old Morgan says, "but I still can't quite picture that we're there and I'm not sure that I will 'til we're strapped in ready to go. I know people will be looking at this and remembering Challenger, and that's a good thing. They will also be thinking about all the people who have been working really hard and will continue working really hard to carry on the work that Christa was doing. I'm happy about that."

In July 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on the surface of the moon, I ran out into the Chicago night to study the bright orb in the sky. Could I actually see traces of the lunar module or the astronauts' footprints with my naked eye? It was a thrilling night and a rare moment in which the entire planet seemed united. Everyone on Earth was focused on the amazing achievement of the Apollo astronauts and praying for their safe return. I was nine years old that summer and I dreamed of one day becoming an astronaut. If someone would have asked me back then what the space program would look like in 2007, I would have said that there would be regular civilian flights to the bustling colonies on the moon by now and possibly tourist jaunts to other planets. Space travel would be no big deal in the 21st century and maybe we would be interacting with life from other solar systems from whom we could learn so much. It seemed like a future of endless possibilities.