Posted in personal
January 28, 2011

The Challenger Disaster, 25 years on.

As a five year old, if you asked me what I wanted to be- it was three things. An artist, an actress and an astronaut. I was already picking out constellations (my favorite was, and still is, Orion).

January 28, 1986 was an exciting day. Not only was it my 6th birthday, but it marked the first time that a civilian was going into space. I admit, I don’t exactly remember how we learned. I know that some people were watching the launch, but I believe that we were listening. Even at the age of 6, it touched me in a deeply personal way. Not just because it was my birthday- but because I had wanted with all my being to go into space.

The disaster didn’t change my mind at all. Not even after watching the Punky Brewster’s very special episode about the it (Accidents Happen, Part 1 and Part 2). I actually learned more. I started to learn about the other disaster that set back our space program, and hoped that they would continue to send people into space.

A few years later, I went to Disneyland. Not for the usual trip, but because the spouses of the Challenger crew were going to be at an event for the Young Astronauts program. Leonard Nimoy was going to speak! It was my first experience with a private event at Disneyland. We got there early in the morning, and they were setting up chairs. Because of the event itself, they had chain link fence (not ropes) around Town Square.

My mom and I sat outside the fence, watching as they set up. Waiting as people arrived. And we were noticed. By a man who was part of the Young Astronauts program. My mom talked to him, I talked to him- he was surprised that a 6 year old wouldn’t have taken a space shuttle exploding on their birthday as a sign that the space program wasn’t right for them. But mostly he was touched by how passionate I was.

After the event, I got to meet the spouses. As a kid, I was touched that they took their time to meet me, and talk to me. I’m not sure what they made of me, but I took away something valuable. June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Challenger’s commander Dick Scobee, had been speaking about what sort of man her husband was. She had said that he read everything, and learned about everything. His belief was that if you know a little about a lot that you will always have something in common, something to talk about, no matter who you’re meeting.

Those words shaped my entire life.

Eventually, reality set in and I had to evaluate my goals. I had to face the reality that I wasn’t going to be very tall- I’d barely hit 5’0″ when I graduated, and was literally a 95 lb weakling. I knew that unless I was a brilliant scientist, my way into the space program would be through the Air Force- and I was never going to be of a strong enough build to go into space. So I focused on my other passions.

The space program still holds a special place in my heart. I schedule my life around launches and landings, which is why I was able to watch the Columbia disintegrate on reentry. A few of my employers knew that I’d be unavailable for 15 minutes with any launch. I still hold my breath with every launch, waiting until they’re out of the atmosphere and deemed safe.

It’s easy to look at accidents like the Challenger disaster as a sign that we shouldn’t be in space. But look how far we’ve come. It was only 1903 that the Wright Brothers took their famous flight. I’m sure that they didn’t think that 60 years later we would have rockets launching into space. There will always be setbacks in space exploration, but that’s a risk that the brave men and women who work in the field know that they’re undertaking.

25 years on, I am grateful for how the Challenger shaped my life. Had the flight been successful, I’m not sure that I would have ever heard about Dick Scobee’s life or cared that he was passionate about meeting with people, and really getting to know everyone. That anecdote is one of the things that truly has shaped my life, and will undoubtedly shape the life of my children as well.

For all those out there, did the Challenger affect your life or the life of someone you know? I’d love to hear from others who were inspired, or had their lives changed.

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