January 28 marked the 36th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the loss of the seven astronauts on board. May the memory of Francis “Dick” Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe always be for a blessing and, in their spirit, may we always commit ourselves to exploring our universe.
I have always been fascinated by the space program. I have so many vivid memories of watching the Mercury and Gemini flights from home and, more often, at school. Our teachers schlepped out the big TV and gathered us all in the school auditorium even if many of the kids did not really care. The teachers did and I certainly did. I was fascinated by every aspect of the flights and, when Apollo came along, I watched in awe as so many of us did as we saw earthrise for the first time and as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.
The Challenger disaster struck all of us very deeply and very hard. This was, after all, the first time a teacher, Christa McAuliffe, had been on board a space mission. Her charisma and excitement had just captivated the entire nation. It was such a horrible tragedy — especially in retrospect, as we now know that there were so many who were deeply concerned and adamantly opposed to having the shuttle take off in such cold weather.
But, the shuttle disaster also struck me on another level. I wrote extensively in The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey, about my love of the space program and commented about the shuttle disaster:
“When I was a kid, I never believed I would own a computer that could fit in my pocket, but it seemed perfectly reasonable to me to assume that if a man could walk on the moon in 1969, I would be able to do so by the time I was 30 or 40.It took some time for it to sink in that it was never going to happen. I suppose I realized it before the Challenger disaster, but that horrible tragedy ended whatever future I had as a space traveler as it did for so many other millions of Americans. I cried that day for the Challenger astronauts, but I admit that I was also crying for my suddenly less exciting future.”
It was a sobering moment, but it was also a moment that saw our nation rise to the challenge, inspired by President Reagan’s beautiful words at the memorial, of continuing to explore the heavens as we continue to do today.
There is one more point that I want to raise about the Challenger disaster. I do not in any way want to diminish or minimize the personal tragedy, but to point out a way our world has changed in 36 years.
The explosion occurred at 11:39. That day, I was scheduled to meet a colleague for an early lunch. After lunch, I went to my office to do some paperwork and begin writing a sermon for that weekend. Some time around 3:00, the phone rang and it was the mother of a bat mitzvah student calling me to ask if I was still going to meet with her daughter for tutoring that afternoon. I asked her why she would ask that. There was silence on the other end of the line and then she said: “Haven’t you heard the news?” I hadn’t.
That would never and could never happen today.
We live in a time when we have 24/7 minute-to-minute exposure to news events and that expectation carries over to every aspect of our lives. In many ways, that is a blessing. Certainly, it enables us to be in immediate contact with family and friends and that can be very important especially in critical times.
But with that immediate connection has come a sense of impatience that permeates every aspect of our lives. Nothing can wait, even for a moment, and the expectations that we will learn about and react to events immediately puts more stress on all of us. That is one reality that I confront every time I think of the 3 hours I lived in complete ignorance of this terrible tragedy.
Returning to the real issue, the tragedy itself — we cannot stop exploring and can not stop finding new ways, such as the new James Webb telescope, to seek a better understanding of our universe. The expertise and the courage of everyone involved in the space program, especially the astronauts, is an inspiration. And, in memory of those who lost their lives in the Challenger disaster — as well as on Space Shuttle Columbia and Apollo 1 and those of other nations’ space programs — may we alway continue to look up and look forward.