from the vault: some of us are looking at stars

This was originally written in May of last year, just after I watched the space shuttle Atlantis blast off into orbit. On the anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I thought it was worth reprinting:

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.

Please join me in a moment of silence for the Challenger astronauts, and the people they left behind.

Thank you. Now, listen to John Roderick sing The Commander Thinks Aloud on #JoCoCruiseCrazy and try not to cry.

We are, all of us, in the gutter … but some of us are looking at stars.

54 thoughts on “from the vault: some of us are looking at stars”

  1. Like everyone else here who was conscious that day, I will never forget it either. My school didn’t show anything on TV, but I was glued to the television the moment I got home.
    On Feb 24, 2011, I will be at Kennedy Space Center to do something that I’ve dreamed of since I was a kid: see the space shuttle launch in person. STS-133 has been delayed due to mechanical problems and hydrogen leaks and to be perfectly honest, I’m nervous, for the astronauts and for me. But I keep in mind that there are literally thousands of people working together to make each space shuttle launch a success. I’ll definitely be holding my breath for the 8 minutes it takes them to get into orbit.

  2. I was also home sick from school that day. Unlike Wil, I was on the couch watching the launch and saw the explosion and just sat stunned, not entirely sure what happened. I’ll never forget the sight of that oddly shaped cloud. I can see it today as if it just happened.

  3. I was in school when the Challenger exploded. I, too, feel that catch in my breath when I hear “Go to throttle up”. If you ask me, though, the biggest tragedy in the history of the space program is not the Challenger, nor the Columbia, nor even Apollo 1. The biggest tragedy in the history of the space program is the fact that we made it to the moon, and at some point, stopped reaching. We contented ourselves with how far we’d come, and stopped looking at how far we could be going.

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