Shuttle Memories

Well, I’ve had a few days to let the whole Columbia disaster sink in, and as much as I want to concentrate on this incident, I find myself focusing more on the past.

I remember when Columbia first launched. Hell, I remember the cheesy songs they used to run about the Columbia. But most significantly, I remember where I was when I heard that the Challenger exploded. I wasn’t watching the launch itself; I’d been following the news stories about the launch, the selection and training of Christa McAuliffe, but I had to be in class at the time of the launch, and naturally figured I’d have plenty of time to see what was going on.

I was in a religion class — I went to a private school — and a few students entered several minutes late. The teacher scolded them for their tardiness, and one of them (I can still picture him as clearly as if it were yesterday) said simply, “The space shuttle just blew up.” He repeated himself just once, and I remember thinking about the old scriptwriting rule that claims you need to repeat disaster news three times for it to sink in. In this case, he only had to tell us twice. After class, we all saw for ourselves what had happened, and it occupied our thoughts for the rest of the year. I even remember a “mentalist” entertainer performing at a school assembly, and how the climax of his show was the opening of an allegedly sealed time capsule in which he’d predicted the disaster (in naturally vague terms). Even then, my skepticism was fairly developed: I knew it was all a series of tricks, but until that point, I’d been willing to suspend disbelief and enjoy the performance. When he brought out his little “prediction,” I just felt disgusted that he’d be so blatantly exploitative.

The Challenger explosion was a defining moment, not only for me, but for all of Generation X. The baby boomers had the Kennedy assassination, and I’d venture to speculate that the September 11 attacks (I refuse to trivialize them by using the colloquial “9-11”) will fulfill the same role for Generation Y. There have been any number of other “major” events in the past three decades — the Reagan shooting, the Wall Street crash of ’87, the 1984 Apple Superbowl ad — but nothing else had nearly the same impact.

And unfortunately, that’s the case now. The destruction of the Columbia — not to mention the loss of life aboard — isn’t any less important in the global scheme than Challenger’s demise. It will certainly have a similarly crippling effect on the American space program; it’s doubtful there will be any further shuttle launches this year. There will be just as much blame thrown around — though perhaps nothing so dramatic as Richard Feynman’s now-famous dunking of the O-Ring sample in a glass of ice water. And for a while, the powers-that-be (assuming they don’t scuttle the program) will be willing to spend the money it takes to actually maintain safety considerations (unlike in the case of the previously recommended escape devices). But it’s a lot like public health spending — when nothing terrible happens for a while, nobody feels the need to “waste” funds on an invisible problem.

Let’s hope we actually learn something this time.


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