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.