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. 25 years ago today
    I was sitting in Mr Lawrence’s 2nd period geometry class, my senior year of high school. It was the end of class when we were allowed to start our homework and listen to the radio, which was my responsibility since I sat next to it. I switched it on and was instantly annoyed that they were playing news instead of music. It took nearly a minute for it to sink into my brain what they were saying. “The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff today …”
    It was the quietest day of high school I ever experienced.
    We went class to class, radio to radio, some rooms had tvs, most of my teachers abandoned their lessons that day and just let us sit and learn from real life. It was the third time that real life disrupted school, the first was Mt St Helens, the second was when President Reagan was shot. I’m sure there were more, but those are the ones that stand out.
    In terms of loss of life, it’s wasn’t a tragedy on a grand scale, 7 people, more than that have died for lesser causes. I know we all remember 9/11/2001, which is hopefully the greatest tragedy we’ll ever have to experience. But I remember the very first Shuttle flight in 1981, I was late to school because I stayed home, against mom’s orders, to watch it. It made me cry in awe and excitement and pride.
    It’s hard to watch your heroes die, something that has happened all too often since that day in 1986.
    Sometimes it is easier to mark time by our tragedies, rather than our triumphs.
    So, yeah, I guess the point of this is that I’m old, sentimental nerd. It’s just something that was on my mind this morning.

  2. In New Hampshire, I’ve been working at our TV station this week, compiling story after story on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster for our website. I was 12 when it happened, not living in New Hampshire and so not having the intensely personal tie to Christa McAuliffe that everyone here had. But I had a model of the space shuttle on my dresser and bookshelves full of astronomy books.
    Every story I wrote this week brought me back to that day. It’s been tough. But I also keep thinking about how amazing it is that we’ve come this far. And thinking that we still have so far to go. Thank you to all the astronauts who have sacrificed it all to push back the frontier and lift us ever higher.

  3. Well, 25 years ago I just arrived to this world, so, I couldn’t think of it then… I’m glad there were others to tell me the story.
    But this piece is brilliant. Thank you for sharing that

  4. When I heard John Roderick play that song on the cruise, it gave me goosebumps and the image in my head was watching that 1986 shuttle launch on the tv screen in my classroom with jaw dropping incredulity.
    I think it’s an apt thing to share here and a beautiful way to remember those who’ve dared to go beyond and never made it back. Thank you.

  5. I was a senior in high school sitting in my calculus class. They came on over the intercom and announced what had happened. Most of us were very shaken. You see, most of our parents worked at Thiokol, including my father who was a major part of the solid rocket motor booster program. This hit home for us. I was the editor of the high school newspaper, and we dedicated a whole issue to it; what were your thoughts, what about the future in space, what now, etc. This was a day that has stuck in my mind forever, frozen in time. My father still cannot talk about it without tearing up, and he isn’t one to cry, trust me.
    The fact that we can leave this planet is amazing. Trying to grasp the full meaning is like trying to grasp the meaning of infinity; our puny human minds cannot fully understand. All I know is that I am glad to be in this time of exploration, and I hope that, as the Shuttle program draws to an end, the US will somehow continue to be the frontrunners in space. I will never forget the Challenger and those heroes that gave their all.

  6. Thank you Wil.
    I was only 6, but vividly remember when Sesame Street was interrupted with a “Important News Bulletin.” To this day, I can’t see one of those flash across my tv screen without thinking about this moment and tensing up.

  7. “I held my breath like I have every single time since the shuttle program was reinstated in 1988 …”
    I thought about that this morning – that probably very few of us watch any launch, even that of an unmanned rocket, w/o feeling a twinge of January 28, 1986. It is a moment etched upon so many souls.

  8. I was home with the flu also, and listening to the radiowhen they announced the “major malfunction” then broke in and said “it exploded.” I sat stunned, then I called my father at work and broke up an important meeting. We had been at the Kennedy Space Center the previous month to see the Columbia launch; I had wanted nothing more than to become an astronaut.
    I can’t think about this even now without getting my eyes full of tears.

  9. “I held my breath like I have every single time since the shuttle program was reinstated in 1988″
    I thought about that this morning – that there is probably not one launch, not even the unmanned rockets, that we don’t each feel a twinge of January 28, 1986. It is a moment etched upon our many souls.

  10. 25 years ago, I wasn’t alive yet. Heck, my mom still hadn’t graduated high school! But this…Wil, dang it, there’s something in my eye now. Thank you.

  11. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since this happened. I was sitting in my 8th Grade History class when we were told the news, and I just couldn’t believe it until I saw the news later that afternoon. Several months later we had a visit from a representative of NASA (one of our science teachers tried out for that ill-fated trip, and this was the consolation prize), and I remember asking him about what they determined caused the Challenger disaster.
    The anniversary of the Columbia tragedy is coming up soon, and I remember being really irritated because they weren’t really focusing on the lives that were lost, but the fact that they were down to just THREE SHUTTLES!

  12. Thanks so much for these sentiments.
    I was 5 years old and in kindergarten. Our class had the privilege of going to she school library to watch “the school teacher going to space.” I didn’t truly grasp the meaning of the fireball and our teacher quickly turning off the TV until many years later. I am proud to say that 25 years later I work on the Shuttle program at KSC. I have watched every launch since I started and my breath still catches every time. I will miss them when they are gone but I look forward to what will come next.

  13. 25 years ago… I was just a bit over 3 yrs old. But fast forward about 7 years and I distinctly remember a substitute science teacher of mine dedicating the anniversary of it for an entire class. Mind you, it wasn’t mostly about the tragedy itself (I was in 4th grade.) so much as it was about how important it was to continue the work necessary to live some dreams. I remember that being a weird class, still, but I think it was the start of the great amount of interest I have in the sciences.
    And while my mind is half there on the anniversary of the tragedy, oddly my mind is also looking to the future cautiously optimistic (maybe way too much so) over the new engines I think we’re pondering on using (VASIMR leaps to mind). I think the appropriate words I would use here are… “Thanks for the help guys… you definitely did your part.”

  14. I was pretty young when Challenger blew up. I was outside playing and my dad called me in and I saw the explosion and my initial reaction was, “Whoa! Cool!”
    My father got really mad at me. My initial reaction was based on a failure to understand. There were cool space ships that blew up in my favorite movies. The effects here were awesome. It wasn’t that I thought I was seeing fiction; it was just that I didn’t in my immature state relate what I was seeing to either loss of human life or the tragedy for the space program (which was incredibly important to me even at that age.)
    I quickly realized my error and had an experience that was very unusual for me… I felt extremely guilty. One I could (very quickly) see my reaction as crass and unfeeling, I had a very hard time forgiving myself for it. As an adult, I realize that I was responding to pyrotechnics on tv and not a “real” event, but at the time I thought there must be something monsterous about me to be unable to feel bad for that loss.
    When I think back to the event now, in addition to the sense of loss and tragedy that I think is common, and the sense of happiness that we did move beyond it and it didn’t unduly suppress the space program, I have an added component of needing to remember that sometimes because of our context we fail to approach even the most dramatic of things with appropriate compassion. I remember how my dad felt at my insensitive reaction and look for other cases when I could be missing the real important point in something.
    A good example is every time some parent leaves a child unattended and something bad happens as a result. Most of the attention is focused on uproar about the parent’s alleged mistake. I’m usually the first in most groups to say, “Hey, our first reaction here needs to be to support a poor lady who just had her child kidnapped / hurt / whatever. That’s an unimaginable tragedy.” I see others with looks on their faces when I say such things that I can imagine reflect the emotions I felt 25 years ago. I think the space shuttle incident helped me grow.

  15. I remember this day well. In the UK they would show the Shuttle launches live, and as an obsessive 12 year old (almost 13) I was sat, mesmerized in front of the TV set watching the events unfold as I had always done.
    As the events transpired, it was not at all like I had always seen, and I realised something wasn’t right when I first saw the extra glow on the boosters that had not usually been there. Within moments it was over, and it upset me that I had seen 7 lives removed from this plane of existence in such a sudden glow.
    The event/disaster highlighted how much of a dangerous endeavour it was for mankind to defy gravity and explore the heavens above us. All the sci-fi fantasy of mankind taking off in ftl equipped craft was suddenly silenced, momentarily, by the realisation that at present we effectively strapped ourselves to volatile explosives and kept our fingers crossed.
    On that day I feared, as a young teen, that I would never see mankind venture out of our atmosphere again. Thankfully, I was wrong.
    Here’s to the memory of the lives lost on that day…
    Michael J. Smith,
    Dick Scobee,
    Ronald McNair;
    Ellison Onizuka,
    Christa McAuliffe,
    Gregory Jarvis,
    Judith Resnik.
    And here’s a second toast to the brave souls who venture up into the space above us to this very day, in the advancement of the human race into the stars above us.

  16. Great post Wil,
    The remembrance of that day was like it was today, not 25 years ago.
    I remember that day listening to John Denver’s “Flying for Me”. Also made my cry each time. For those who don’t know the song get 5 minutes and go listen to it.

  17. Thank you for the reminder, Wil. I’ve posted a memoriam on my own blog.
    I was a junior at the Bronx High School of Science. One of our teachers had been a finalist; if luck had gone a slightly different way, he’d have been the one on that Shuttle, not McAuliffe. I didn’t see the footage until that evening watching the news over dinner… and then I couldn’t eat for the tears. The image of those diverging smoke trails is forever imprinted on my soul.

  18. Wil,
    Thank you for writing about this. I blogged about all the lost astronauts on my blog, yesterday, but the Challenger loss will always stand out in my mind because it was so mind-numbing.
    I was at NASA JPL that day 25 years ago, as part of the coverage of the Voyager 2/Uranus flyby. We were scheduled to have the last flyby press conference that morning, as soon as the shuttle launched. So, there were probably a couple of hundred of us: press, scientists, NASA honchos, etc. all standing in the von Karman auditorium watching the launch. As it happened, we were simply speechless. We didn’t know what to do. We all turned to each other and everyone held on to someone else for a few minutes as it sank in what we were seeing.
    I will NEVER forget that day. Ever.
    Like you, I hold my breath every time there’s a launch. And in the years since then, I’ve gotten to know some of the astronauts as friends and colleagues, and knowing that THEY are onboard has always made it ever so much more difficult to watch a launch. Thankfully those folks have made it up and back… and they have my thanks and praise for their bravery and determination to do the job they were hired to do.
    CC Petersen aka TheSpacewriter.

  19. Strange how many of us were sick that day. I was at home, feeling rotten, watching cartoons, and they broke in with the story. A friend of mine described it really well. It’s like the color drained out of their head. I just couldn’t believe it was true.
    There was all kinds of discussion at school the next day. Should we shut down the shuttle program? Should we shut down NASA? I remember telling people I’d be the first one to get on the next shuttle launch, given the chance. I believed it then, I believe it now: We can and should do these things. I agree, it’s probably not the best use of NASA’s tiny budget, but perhaps that just means we need to re-examine our priorities.

  20. I remember this day so clearly. We were eating lunch in the cafeteria when the meanest teacher in school rushed in. She was crying and I had to ask a friend what she was saying.
    I think that the Challenger explosion is this generation’s JFK Assassination; we’ll always be able to remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.

  21. I wasn’t sick that day. I was standing in my college student union grabbing a sandwich, watching the shuttle launch on the TV there. Then of course, not buying lunch because I was too upset to eat it.
    Coming from someone who was lucky enough at four years old to see Neil and Buzz walk on the moon, and remember it, and later understand just exactly how astounding and epic the Space Program is….Thank for this perfect post. You’ve summed up exactly how I feel about all of this and I appreciate that a lot.

  22. As I read this and all of the comments that have followed, I’m glad that there are ways for us all to share our memories of this event. It is sort of branded on our collective cultural memory, so thanks, Wil, for allowing us a little space to share our story of our memory.
    I remember the day as clearly as I remember the declaration of the Gulf war, the first one, and 9/11/01. I was a freshman in high school, and the quad had been abuzz with talk of the space shuttle, and the first civilian, a teacher, being allowed to fly with the astronauts and how amazing that was. There was a zip that went through us, someone said something about an explosion, but no one knew really what was going on. I walked into my English class, and Mr. Drath had the television on, and we were stunned as we watched the shuttle explode.
    The shuttle exploded when I was a freshman, and the Berlin Wall came down when I was a senior. Those are sort of the anchors of the years when I was really forming my idea of my place in the world.

  23. I was 14 in my freshman year of high school science class with Sister Georgann. I can still see her getting upset when it was announced over the pa.
    I was shocked. And yes, every time a shuttle launches, I hold my breath. I beleive Christie McAulifeee was on that shuttle. She was to be “the first teacher” to fly into space. Not sure how I felt about that particular aspect of the program, but it’s what happened.
    I too feared we would never go back to space. I am glad we did, despite the next disaster with Columbia. We have to keep going, keep trying, keep shooting for the stars.
    My youngest who is 4 says he wants to go to the moon. I tell him that he can go! I am glad that I am a parent at a time when I can say it’s possible, despite the dangers.

  24. I was an undergraduate in university (so y’all can just git off my lawn) and heard about it from a friend — I initially didn’t believe him, but soon found out that it was true.
    But, here’s a story I don’t often see re-told:
    After the space shuttles had been up enough times to be routine, and before the Challenger incident, I read an essay, I forget where, and I can’t seem to find it now, by Isaac Asimov. The subject was the up-coming shuttle accident — not Challenger specifically, of course nobody knew that was coming, but the probable future accident. Dr. Asimov made the point, rather clearly, that space flight is risky, and that as the launch rate increases and the cycles accumulate on the airframes, and the fallible humans adjust to the routine, somebody somewhere is going to screw up, or maybe just have some bad luck, and we’re going to lose one of these things, and, the nature of the process being what it is, we’ll probably lose the crew as well. But the essay was not at all cynical — those of you who know Asimov’s work will appreciate this. What he wanted was for “us”, the forward-looking technically-minded folks that made up his audience, to be ready for the day. He had a few talking points about the value of manned spaceflight, and a clear understanding of the (relatively small) scientific value, as well as the high value of fulfilling the exploratory imperative, but my primary recollection was his sense that “we”, space-flight enthusiasts, shouldn’t get too comfortable just because this thing has worked a few times. Advocacy was still important, and would become even more so should the fateful day arrive, and we should be ready to articulate the reasons why we take the risks, even in the face of immediate loss.
    I think those of us who thought about these things, and immersed ourselves in the minutae of the shuttle design, figured on a re-entry problem being the most likely. Launch is high-stress, but it’s brief, and re-entry occurs after the mission is mostly over, when stealth flaws have had a chance to grow to dangerous levels without detection, and that thermal-protection system was pretty scary and seemed unreliable at first.
    So that’s partly why I was skeptical when I heard the news — blew up at launch? Not the expected failure mode, even for those of us expecting some kind of failure. (Interestingly, the Columbia failure fit this narrative much better.)
    I don’t know how many people read that essay, or what impact it had, but the space enthusiast community came together, and were advocates, and reiterated the reasons even in the face of loss.

  25. Can I ask if someone has a link to a version of the song where the singer is singing it, and not just shouting it into the mike, and trying to hide the fact with instruments boosted in the mix to hide the voice?
    I’m sorry, but I’m having trouble getting past the first 3 lines on any of the dozen versions of it I’ve found on YouTube…

  26. I was in elementary school. They wheeled a television out and class stopped. It wasn’t until I became an aerospace engineer that I learned that it never should have happened. What happened was a near certainty and it was a massive moral and ethical violation to allow it.
    I maintain the desperate hope, recently booned by Virgin Galactic, that we will press on. Once more into the void, because we must; because it could one day preserve our species; because it is the moral thing to do for a species that is capable to do so while it is overpopulating a planet; because without this progress, our knowledge may one day stagnate; because those that have died in the pursuit of spaceflight should not have done so in vain; because it may give children a reason to dream.
    This was a great post Wil. Thanks.

  27. I remember I was in 4th grade and we were watching the launch on tv. We saw it all live.
    My wife and I were just talking the other day about how a space shuttle launch used to be such a big deal. The country basically paused for a few minutes to watch them. Now, many have launched with only a minor mention in the evening news. Its a shame that we have collectively turned our back on the space program.

  28. I had just gotten back from the flight line at Hill AFB, less than a month after getting there, my first duty station as an F-16 crew chief. On the flight line you don’t really worry about the world.
    I get to the barracks and see my fellow airmen watching it on TV, and I don’t know what I’m about to see. Everyone else has seen it over and over again, and they’re quiet. I see it and not knowing there was supposed to be a flight that day, I’m curious. And then I watch it happen. I went back to my room and got my jacket, then I went to the NCO Club and downed a pitcher of beer. It was awful.
    Roll call was silent the next morning.

  29. Thank you very much for this awesome post! It brings back lots of memories… 25 years ago, I was a senior in High School. We were watching the shuttle take off on the tv in our current events class. I remember very vividly everything that was going on. We were thrilled the shuttle was off and everyone cheered, as it left the platform. Then before our eyes – we saw the big smoke cloud and heard the control center announce – Houston, we have a problem. We were shocked, everyone sat still for the next few minutes in disbelief. The principal came on the intercom and announced that everyone was to stand and we were to observe a moment of silence for the loss to all the families. That was the only time I heard the entire school quiet, like no one was there. After five minutes, the principal came back on the intercom and announced we were to remain in our current classes for the rest of the day, at which time they put the news feed over the intercom. Our year book has a dedication to the Challenger crew, and 25 years later, I can still remember how I felt at that moment.
    Again, thank you for such an awesome post!

  30. I wasn’t alive at the time, but I wanted to say thank you for introducing me to that song. I just listened to it three times in a row and started crying. I was 14 when Columbia exploded (yes, I know, I’m a baby), and although my memories of it are far eclipsed by 9/11, I remember the frantic scramble to find the one working television in the middle of nowhere so we could at least hear the president speak. The whole thing was colored by all the adults talking about what Challenger had been like, and how much worse it had been with everyone watching.

  31. i remember watching that live on tv (we had a snow day) and the shock that i felt. not long after that (when they were debating continuing the shuttle program) my mom found a phone number to order some free stuff from NASA (recreated mission patches & stuff) and the guy she talked to asked if they should continue. she said after a period mourning and investigation to go on with the program.
    i also recall a couple of years later watching the discovery launch and barely breathing, praying that nothing would go wrong.

  32. Thanks for the great post. I was at work that day they brought a TV to the kitchen, I have never seen a large hotel kitchen so quiet [until9/11]

  33. I was a sophomore in a Catholic all-boys high school, and we had an all-school mass in the gym that day, when after Communion, the religious ministry director took the mic and said the space shuttle had exploded. The school turned on the TVs in the little theater next to the cafeteria, and during lunch I stopped in to watch the news and see the explosion for the first time. I got home late that day after track practice, and came through the bus/train station where they were selling an extra edition of the Chicago Tribune. I still have that edition to this day.
    In Chicago, it was a oddly surreal week — the Bears had just won the Super Bowl a couple days earlier and the city had gone crazy, but the disaster effectively brought everyone back to reality.

  34. I wasn’t born until 1987, so for a long time this was just an event in history for me.
    Four years ago, though, my freshman year of college, one of the people in my college’s directing class did the play Defying Gravity by Jane Anderson, which is a fictional retelling from the eyes of Christa McAuliffe’s daughter. It was haunting, it was beautiful, and I realized that it doesn’t matter how many people died, it was a tragic event. Even now I don’t know if it hits me the way it hits people who lived through it.
    Also, this song is amazingly beautiful, though it took me a few minutes to really understand what was happening.

  35. I remember feeling like a dream had ended. The books that I had read with creative artwork showing our lives among the stars — living in space stations, moon colonies, mars colonies, and beyond. It hurt then because I had no realization of how the world worked as I watched from the understanding of a pre-adolescent.
    It still upsets me today to see the image and footage reused. But, even knowing more about how the world works, I keep hoping the dream isn’t gone.

  36. I was 12 years old, sitting in my school library’s computer room, typing away on an Apple II for whatever classroom assignment I happened to be working on that day. I remember our librarian suddenly running straight through the computer room, to the A/V storage area, and then wheeling out a t.v./vcr combo. This was enough for me to want to know what was going on, so I went outside of the room and into the library. One of our teachers, who was allegedly a finalist in the teacher in space program, was running down the hallway just outside of the library, in tears. Then the librarian turned on the television, and of course that was the only thing that was on the news.
    This is easily the earliest “Do You Remember Where You Were When..” moment in my life.

  37. As some around your age who currently works on the space program and who is married to someone who currently works on the shuttle Thank you for this post Wil Wheaton, Thank you.

  38. Amazing how many people who shared their stories are very close to my own age. I was 11 when the Challenger accident happened. I don’t remember what I was doing at the time but we had been studying the mission in my Science class and when we found out what happened it was one of the saddest things I remember from those days. What made it a little more intense for my class was that my best friend had been watching the launch with his family…and he saw it happen firsthand and it really shook him up. Our teacher had him tell the class about it and I remember everyone crying and it’s not a memory that I like to visit very often.
    I wish I was still in contact with my old school friend…but I can imagine him sitting and telling his children about his experiences today.

  39. Really? Really? Two stirring posts in a row? Librarians and astronauts…fly me to the moon, let me play among the stars…Then the song? Damn YOU WIL WHEATON!!!! Where are the fucking tissues…

  40. So I wanted to thank Wil and everyone for the stories. It’s very helpful, as it was really a rough time. Let me explain.
    The morning of the 28th, I in West Lafayette. I was a sophomore at Purdue, living on campus in one of the engineering dorms. It was, needless to say, computer & DnD central, something I’m sure you can appreciate, Wil.
    There were two AeroEng fellows that lived down the hall. They were also Air Force ROTC, so were both working towards the path of trying to go for the gold ring – some sort of position with NASA. One fellow was a also a good candidate for astaunaut training, if he kept with things.
    Having one of the few TV’s on the floor, they often came down to my room to watch launches and the like. They were there that day and we watched the launch live. We always got worked up as the countdown went by, and one fellow always said “There she goes!” at liftoff, or somesuch.
    About one minute in – things went to hell and it all went in slow motion. Mind you it had not blown yet – that wasn’t until 1:13. We were all shuttle junkies, and knew it top to bottom. I distinctly remember noticing the SRB plume, and one of the other fellows said it: “What’s on the SRB?” and then “Holy crap the tank..” or something like that.
    Then the tank blew and the shuttle blew and we all started screaming.
    Literally screaming “HolyShitHolyShit”. One of the Aero’s is ranting about liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, while the other (the guy shooting for astronaut training) is now staring at the over and over replays with this blank look of shock. People were coming down the hall at that point and my room turns into trauma central as more people try to cram in to find out what happened and start freaking.
    Eventually, things calmed down a bit, but it stayed “fresh” for everyone over the next few weeks as the AeroEng school was helping to consider the possible causes.
    I stopped watching launches after that for awhile. I’m not sure if either of those fellows made it further, we didn’t talk to much and they moved on to off campus living. I never really talked to the one fellow about astronaut training again.

  41. Will, I love these kind of posts. One suggestion though – although the blog layout is fine, check out how your post looks after using the readability bookmarklet ( available here: )
    I’m totally addicted to using this now to read your stuff. It feels more akin to reading a book. Perhaps you could put a link to it at the bottom of articles? That way people will still see your book links on the side before they switch to the readability style.
    What do you think?
    BTW, could you pleeeeeese put your audiobooks on iTunes. :)

  42. I’m as old as dirt and remember ALL of the US manned launches. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo
    – I remember the tragedy of Apollo 1,
    – I was there for Apollo 11’s launch,
    – the empty feeling I had when Apollo 17 left the moon which was the final Apollo mission other than the Apollo/Soyuz.
    – the euphoria when the space shuttle program came on line
    – then while stationed in England (RAF Lakenheath), the Challenger disaster. The entire base kinda when off line, we had a job to do but it was difficult to keep in the zone. a few months later we attacked Libya, losing a crew from my unit and all the raw feeling came flooding back.
    – in March 1988 I was transfered to Edwards AFB, California which, at that time, was the primary landing field for the shuttle and all the excitement of space travel came rushing back to actually see the space shuttle land. The twin sonic booms when it enters the air space over Ewards. Yep we are back in the space business
    – then the 2003 Columbia disaster. I was, and still am, living near the flight path the shuttle used. I didn’t see it or the debris trail from the break up. The empty feeling returned and in a way I felt selfish because the only thing I thought of was . . crap there goes the space program and will NASA even survive, never thinking of the 7 lives lost.
    it is somewhat strange that all 3 NASA tragedies occured within a week of each other.
    Apollo 1 27 Jan, 1967
    Challenger 28 Jan, 1986
    Columbia 1 Feb, 2003

  43. I am older than dirt and remember all the space triumphs and tragedies from Sputnik to the ISS. In the early days I was thrilled to think that men would walk on Mars in my lifetime. Now I realize that is not going to happen. When our government goes bankrupt we will be thankful to have food on the table. But we can still dream impossible dreams.

  44. Bob, Freeman: I’m with you in the “older than dirt” category; Apollo 1 happened when I was in junior high, Challenger when I was a science reporter just heading back to graduate school to study more space and astronomy, and Columbia occurred after I’d finished that schooling.
    You, me, all of us who remember all three — we were the ones who were going to be on the Moon and Mars in the future. We were the cool, space-generation punks who were going to do it. And, in the middle of all that came Star Trek, which seemed to show us the human adventure that awaited us.
    We still have Star Trek, in a way. But, that future where we were going to be exploring the planets ourselves? Where is it?
    I don’t want to think that the Apollo 3, the Challenger and Columbia astronauts gave their lives so that we wouldn’t continue our trek to space. We’ll get there… they paved the way and we shouldn’t forget them. But, we need to face facts: some in today’s generations maybe aren’t as giddy about it as we were — it’s not new to them anymore. And, certainly there are politicians who couldn’t care less about space because they or their “owners” (lobbyists, fundies, teabaggers, science deniers, etc.) don’t want to see scientific advances or humans venturing out to the space from which we all originally came.
    But, I know that there still burns inside somebody’s breast the need to go out there and git ‘er done. That’s the least the Apollo, Challenger, and Columbia folks would expect from us. We can do it.

  45. I was 15 and remember it as I was watching the launch live on SS are tweeting live from space.TV (it was late afternoon in Germany). It was quite a shock because you always think that technology is so sophisticated and there are so many redundancies and early warning systems built in that something like that shouldn’t happen.
    I truly hope manned space flights continues and organisations like NASA and international equivalents continue to receive the funding they need because, well, the truth is out there. Space exploration is one of the most exciting sciences for me, especially these days where astronauts on the I

  46. I was a few days shy of being 6 when this happened. I don’t remember much of what was going on that day…if we had it on during class or if I heard later. But what you say is so true and sad — what makes the news a lot of the time is so not newsworthy. America needs to get its priorities straightened out.

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