Very few events catapult to status of “I remember when…” It takes an image, usually one of tragedy, and brands it into our memory. I remember being on a family trip in Corpus Christi when Elvis died. I remember being at work when the World Trade Center was bombed in 1993 and when it fell on 9-11-01.
I vividly remember being at home watching the Challenger take when tragedy struck.
It was my 3rd year at UTA and I was taking 18 hours and working full-time. Burning the candle at both ends and happy to do it. I was ironing some pin point cotton shirts for the day while my girlfriend was plopped in a bean bag I had watching the take off. This take off had a neat feel to it, as we were sending the first teacher into space – Christa McAuliffe.
We watched the pomp leading to take off and them the grand launch itself. It was truly magnificent. Like everyone else watching, when it exploded, we were unsure what had happened and knew it could not be good. That pang of pain hit my gut and I began to cry. The formal announcement had not been made yet, but the television coverage was so clear. In moments it was confirmed what had happened and America began to mourn one of its greatest losses.
McAuliffe and fellow astronauts Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka and Gregory Jarvis were bringing another level of excitement to NASA. This was the time of Ronald Reagan, Star Wars Defense System, and the Space Station Freedom. NASA was the agency in the federal government that illustrated raw passion for exploration and growth. However, Congress was placing the squeeze on the agency during these times and many wondered if the budget issues facing NASA were a direct cause of the Challenger explosion.
Engineer Dr. Judith Resnick, the first woman as well as the first Jewish woman in space, was recruited into NASA by actress Nichelle Nichols. Resnick was on the maiden voyage of the shuttle Discovery and caught viewers attention as her long hair flowed in the weightlessness of space.
Physicist Ronald McNair, the second black man to fly into space, was a Ph.D. graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had a national following in the science community for his work in laser physics.
Lt. Colonel Ellison Onizuka was the research engineer on board Challenger. Onizuka had been in the US Air Force since 1970 and had served as a test ilot and flight test engineer. He was selected for NASA in 1978 and had also flown on Discovery.Gregory Jarvis, a civilian payload specialist from Hughes Aircraft, had been in the USAF from 1969 to 1973 – when he was honorably discharged. Jarvis was an engineer by trade and was on the flight to help keep the shuttle balanced.
Christa McAuliffe, the teacher from New Hampshire, was a new step forward for NASA. One of 11000 applicants for President Reagan’s Teacher in Space Project, McAuliffe literally represented the best of the best of public educators in the sense of being able to take the space experience to the classroom for young minds. The project was designed to get more public interest in NASA, as Reagan saw the agency as a critical component of the nation’s defense.
The Challenger tragedy was more than an explosion – it was the beginning of slow descent of the agency. The explosion caused Congress to rethink the Space Station Freedom and it lost funding and ultimately went away. The space shuttle program was shelved for nearly three years before flights started again. During the 1990’s the agency floundered in mediocrity as the Bush 41 and the Clinton Administrations strangled the agency’s funding. The movie Armageddon put some excitement back into NASA as the potential saving grace for the world in the face of a mega disaster. However, the explosion of the shuttle Columbia undid all the good feeling the movie had put in public interest for NASA. The Columbia explosion in 2003 pretty much placed the final nail in the space shuttle’s life expectancy. The shuttle programs ceased in 2008 and the Obama Administration killed any thoughts of returning to the moon with manned space flight in 2009.
While probes are going to space to do research, the US has no current programs to send manned flights to Mars, the stars, or beyond anytime.
The Challenger crew was working to take NASA to the next stage. Their deaths, along with those from all other space missions, serve as a reminder that frontiers are not conquered or claimed without sacrifice. They were, then and now, true patriots to the cause for our nation. Hopefully, NASA will one day return to the status the agency was designed for and one the nation needs.