"...because I know also life is a shuttle.
I am in haste; go along with me..."- Shakespeare
The Date: January 28th, 1986.
The Time: 11:39am EDT
The Place: John F. Kennedy Space Center, Merritt Island, Florida.
Ambient Temperature: 36°F / 2°C
Close your eyes, imagine…
It feels like an abnormally pretty cold morning under a clear blue sky as you are standing in your privileged seat in the KSC Visitor Complex, but the excitement and thrill that surrounds you is contagious and counterbalances this fact by warming up the blood in your veins. Your body shakes a little bit and you are not sure if it is due to the low temperature or the spectacular moment in history that you are about to witness. A couple of yards ahead of you, the digital countdown clock shows that in less than 30 seconds the horizon will fill up with light, smoke and a beautiful roar that will tear through everyone’s heart. Space Shuttle Challenger in its tenth mission and a heroic crew of seven astronauts (Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronal McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Payload Specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe) are about lift off into the final frontier… space. You probably don’t know much about most of the crew, but you have heard about Christa in the TV and the newspapers: She is an American teacher from New Hampshire, selected from over 10,000 applicants for the “NASA’s Teacher in Space Project” and she is about to become the first teacher in space.
The unemotional male voice that is heard through the speakers around the complex, dictates the time remaining for the launch, second-by- second: “T-minus 15 seconds…” and the people around you are standing up, eyes into the horizon where the miniscule shape of the spacecraft, its enormous orange colored external tank and its two powerful engines (known as Solid Rocket Boosters) stand proudly in the Launchpad. “T-minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, we have main engines start, 4, 3, 2, 1 and liftoff! Liftoff of the 25th Space Shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!”. The moment is something that you wish you could live in slow motion, as you can feel the ground beneath your feet trembling, the sound of the engines scratching the lower layers of our terrestrial atmosphere (you can only compare it to the fingers of God scratching some kind of celestial blackboard), and a beautifully drawn white arch formed by the fumes of the engines that grows taller and taller by the second. The witnesses are so moved by the image, cheering, screams of excitement fill the cold air: “Fly baby fly!”, “Go Challenger! Go!”. Both hands in the air, jumping, hugging each other.
In your own mind you start reflecting on the images of what you are seeing. In a delicate small world in the vast ocean of space, in between all the noise inside the madhouse of a very young specie, unsettled, unwise, unable to unify itself as one, there is that flash of light climbing up the stairs of heaven, with seven souls that represent a small glimpse of our brilliant future, our capability for greatness, all that is right about us, all the purpose of our existence, all the brilliant minds and brilliant aspirations. As the ship climbs through the sky, your eyes fill with tears of happiness, for you are a witness of our birth as a better specie. The very best that mankind has to offer, our main gift as a figment of God’s Creation, accelerating from zero to a speed of almost 28,968 kilometers per hour (18,000 miles per hour), a speed nine times as fast as the average rifle bullet, accomplishing our childhood dreams, building our hopes for tomorrow. Those heroes on board that magic carpet are about to change the future, our future, and of those who will live after us.
“Velocity 2,257 feet per second. Altitude 4.3 nautical miles. Downrange 3 nautical miles” the PAO’s calmed voice says, but you don’t hear him for your mind is lost inside those deep thoughts of wonder. “Challenger, Go At Throttle Up” a different voice says, “Roger, Go At Throttle Up” someone replies… and in a flash of light you are woken up. The beautiful symmetric white arc is now interrupted by a ball of fire spreading through the sky, a distant explosive sound gives you a slight hint that something is not normal. “Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation……Obviously a major malfunction….”. Just like that, Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew are gone.
The post-accident investigation revealed that a chain of events that happened due to peer pressure for NASA, miscommunication and secrecy of the contractors that designed the Solid Rocket Boosters, weather factors, overlooked little details, and lack of organization were key factors in this tragic accident. Lessons never to be forgotten that lead to big organizational changes inside NASA and the Space Transport System program. It became a personal matter for every person that was part of the team that makes spaceflight happen and some individuals never recovered as they were directly responsible for the loss of life. But, most of them refocused their pain on trying to figure out what went wrong and how to make sure that it would not happen again. “Failure is not an option” and Challenger’s loss would not be in vain.
There is a big lesson that needs to be learned from this, and it applies to everybody: No matter how big the challenge is, or how small the odds are, there is always a way to straighten the path in order to rise above, for there is no such thing as failure as long as we keep fighting to overcome adversity. Per Aspera Ad Astra…Through Hardship to the Stars.
In the aftermath of Challenger’s disaster, President Ronald Reagan communicated to his nation through these beautiful words:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, “give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.” They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the member of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”
There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
Perhaps this is the greatest gift that our humble specie has….our capability to embrace new challenges, to be amazed by the Universe that surrounds us, to go above and beyond, to explore like heroes.
Now close your eyes again.
Today is the bright blue day of September 29th, 1988. You are standing by the moistened sand in the beautiful beach of Jetty Park, a few miles south of the Kennedy Space Center. The sea breeze whispers sounds of adventure, destiny, and new opportunities. You have changed, we all did, for adversity won’t stop us from prevailing. In a nearby handheld radio you hear a countdown “14, 13, 12, 11, 10, we are go for main engines start, 7, 6, and main engines start, 3, 2, 1, zero, and liftoff!!! Liftoff! Americans return to space as Discovery clears the tower!”. In the horizon beyond a line of trees, Space Shuttle Discovery rises like a Phoenix from the ashes into a brave new world, changing the course of history, of us, teaching us that we evolved for bigger and better things, breaking the sound barrier as an anthem for our true purposes and the things that really matter. “Go Discovery! Keep climbing!” it is time to become a star in the eternal river of time and we go up with you.