some of us are looking at the stars

On January 28, 1986, I was home from school with the flu. I remember that, no matter what I did, I couldn't get warm, so I was sitting in a hot bath when my mom knocked on the bathroom door. 

"There was an accident with the space shuttle," she said, in the same voice she used when she told me that my grandmother had died.

For the next few hours, I sat on the couch, wrapped up in as many blankets as we had, and watched one of the local news networks – probably ABC – cover the unfolding disaster. Because of the fever and the years between now and then, I can't recall a single detail other than how impossible the whole thing felt. How could something like that even happen? And did it mean that we'd never put people into space again?

This morning, I sat in my office and watched the shuttle Atlantis launch into space via a NASA TV stream through VLC on a monitor that is bigger than my family's 1986 television. When mission control gave the order to go with throttle up, I held my breath like I have every single time since the shuttle program was reinstated in 1988, and when the shuttle separated from the boosters and glided into orbit, I got something in my eye. Just take a moment, if you don't mind, and think about what it means that we can leave our planet, even if we've "only" gotten as far as the dark side of the moon. Think about what it means that something as incredible as putting humans into space and bringing them back safely to Earth today earns less media attention and public excitement than the typical celebrity breakup.

It is amazing that we can do this, and even though I've come to believe the shuttle program isn't the best way to spend NASA's tiny budget (which is a pitiful fraction of what it should be), I hope that there was a child watching the launch today who will feel inspired to reach out to the stars and see what's out there.

We humans are a flawed species, to put it mildly, and I think we could do a much better job taking care of our planet and each other … but when I see what we're capable of doing, it gives me hope that the future I pretended to live in twenty years ago will actually arrive some day.

FSMspeed, Atlantis.

160 thoughts on “some of us are looking at the stars”

  1. That’s a really freakin’ weird post. That day, I’ll always remember. I was at home, off school, because my grandmother had died in the early hours of that morning. My cat died that evening. It was a real triple whammy of a day.
    One thing that I remember going through my mind was just how understated the GC’s announcement was; “We seem to have a major malfunction.” Too frikkin’ right.

  2. I remember. I was in the 6th grade and they had brought out TVs for us all to watch. Like you (and apparently everyone here), my heart is in my mouth when I watch a launch.
    Thanks for reminding us of this, Wil!

  3. I remember where I was when this happened. I wanted to watch, but I was not allowed since it was during our morning recess break. I was so excited because there was going to be a teacher in space!
    So after the break, I was first in, and I asked Mr. Rader, my 5th grade teacher, “Did the shuttle get up okay?”
    He replied, “It blew up.”
    I couldn’t believe that he’d joke about that! I just looked at him and said, “That’s not funny.”
    He said, “No, it’s not.”
    We did get to watch the news about it, though. It was like a dream had died.
    I still cry when I think about it, like right now.

  4. I was home from school as well on that day in 1986. Bronchitis, in my case.
    My sister came home and told me that the assistant principal, who knew McAuliffe, had been the one to make the announcement to the school, and that he’d been barely holding it together.
    I’m glad this launch went well.

  5. At the risk of thread necromancy (sorry, I just don’t have time to visit here as often as many readers), I can’t let two comments go by that appeared after my earlier, long post, about the money involved. One poster said that the space program “is so very expensive”, and another that “Obama has cut NASA’s budget” (paraphrasing, and I didn’t go back to ascribe these to their authors, sorry).
    Second point first: NASA’s budget is GOING UP. Got that? UP. Not DOWN. We’re getting MORE money. NOT less. NASA’s budget is to rise by more than $6 billion in the next five years (that’s $6B total over that time, not $6B per year). In this difficult economy and with wars and disasters and everything else that’s happening, almost no other agencies outside Defense are seeing any increase at all. That is “putting one’s money where one’s mouth is.”
    About how expensive it is: Sure, it definitely costs money. But the money spent on NASA isn’t loaded into a rocket and shot into space, you know. It’s spent right here at home, in the US economy, as the employees who are being paid to carry out the dreams and ambitions of space exploration in their communities across the country. It is an investment in our future, by engendering motivation for people to become qualified in math, science, and engineering to work those jobs. How much would you guess NASA gets out of every tax dollar the government collects? A penny? We would KILL for a whole penny. NASA gets less than 0.2 cents of every tax dollar. Yes, it adds up to 18+ billion per year, but it’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things (DoD spends NASA’s yearly budget every six weeks or so). And the return on that investment (like, the entire technological society so many of us take for granted) is far and away the greatest ever earned by any government spending. The world we live in now is a direct consequence of the advances made in aerospace and defense research and development from the 60s on. Any business would gladly sign up for an investment that stood to return a thousandth of that value… hell, a millionth, probably.
    NASA spending is some of the most productive use of money the US government has ever undertaken.

  6. (Yes, I’m a bit behind in my reading of your blog.)
    I, too, was home, sick from elementary school that day, and was,in fact, watching the launch live. The disaster certainly reinforced the so-very-not-routine nature of space exploration. I vaguely remember drawing a picture of the explosion using over a dozen sheets of paper taped together.
    Every time a disaster, political setback, or other circumstances seem to cast doubt on the future of space exploration, I take solace in the fact that History affirms that, though it may take time, mankind always has and will continue to explore.

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