This past week marks two sad moments in history: Challenger and Columbia. Ironically, I was an eye-witness to both of these terrible shuttle tragedies, and the memories of each day are as crystal clear in my mind as the day that they happened.
I was an undergraduate at an engineering school located on Florida’s Space Coast in on January 28, 1986. By this time — the second half of my Junior Year — I had mastered the art of class-scheduling. I tried to take most of my classes on M,W,F and leave T, Th as free as possible so that I could get caught up on reading and homework. Jan 28 happened to be a Tuesday — I believe that my only class that day was an evening Physics Lab. I remember feeling a bit panicky upon waking that morning, knowing that I still had a lot of work to do on a lab report before I’d be able to turn it in that evening. I remember fortifying myself with lots of coffee, not only to wake up and get busy writing, but because it was really, really cold that morning.
I knew that there was a shuttle launch scheduled for that day, but by that time, such events did not evoke the shock-and-awe that they once held over me, despite the fact that I was majoring in Space Sciences! I’ll admit to being quite spoiled, having lived the previous 3 years within spitting distance of Cape Kennedy. One of the students that I went to school with was an engineer who worked on Shuttle, and in the past, he had gotten us some sweet passes to see launches from close proximity — about as close as the media were allowed to be. In those early years, when launches were still “can’t-miss” events, we would hang out on the beach and causeways when we weren’t able to score special passes. Those places offered excellent views as well. Over the course of those couple of years, I had seen both day and night launches, each very special in their own way. But by my senior year, I had seen so many launches that they didn’t demand my attention as they once had. I was beginning to just take safe launches for granted, just part of the routine and mundane.
Around noon time, as I was feverishly laboring away on the lab report, undoubtedly puzzling over how to propagate the uncertainty for the numerical value resulting from one of the experiments, I heard what sounded like a loud explosion that jolted the little rental house that I shared with 2 other gals. The house we lived in at the time was in Indialantic, a strip of land (technically, a “barrier island”) between the Atlantic Ocean and the Indian River (which isn’t really a river at all, but rather a large lagoon that has lots of cool wildlife living in it, like dolphins and manatees!). Northward on this barrier island is where the Cape is located. Given the proximity, feeling the ground rumble a bit when a Shuttle launched wasn’t at all unusual. Perhaps something felt different that day, because for whatever reason, I remember making a beeline for the front door.
Standing in our little front yard that had more sand burrs than grass for greenery, I looked up in the perfectly blue sky. What I saw made my blood run cold: the Shuttle’s contrail was forked. In the many, many times I had seen a shuttle launch, I never saw the trail look anything like that. I instantly knew that something absolutely horrible had happened. Feeling nauseous, heart pounding, I raced into the house, turned on the TV and radio. I remember chaos. Was the shuttle OK, or wasn’t it? Had the crew survived, or hadn’t it? During those initial minutes, no one seemed to want to admit to anything bad having just happened.
I somehow finished up the report through my tears, or perhaps I decided just to turn in whatever I had managed to write up to that point. My memory of the rest of that day is surprisingly sketchy. Almost zombie-like, I made my way onto campus to attend class later that afternoon. There were lots of tears, my fellow classmates were clearly in shock. In the days that followed, there were lots of misinformation and bad reporting from the media, as seems to always happen with disasters. A shadow hung over me and my fellow students for many years afterwards, prompting us to question the wisdom of our pursuit of careers in the space industry…
… The year was 2003, college and graduate school were distant memories, and I had just recently gotten tenure as a professor in a northern Texas university. Just as those many years before, Shuttle launches once again had become routine. Of course, I could no longer just stick my head out the window to see a launch, but seeing the fiery reentry into the atmosphere on the landing approach was not an uncommon occurrence, as the Dallas/Fort Worth area lay in the reentry path for several shuttle landings. If the landing happened to occur outside of full daylight hours, then the bright streak of reentry was quite a spectacle from our Texas backyard.
That particular day, a Saturday (Feb 1), we were up early. There was an exciting, fun event planned at the university. In a truly ironic twist of fate, that morning we were attending the opening of the university’s new meteorite museum, and the VIP who was to give the guest lecture and opening remarks was none other than former Apollo astronaut, Harrison Schmitt. My career path had already provided me the privilege of working closely with a couple of former astronauts. But now Dr. Schmitt, he is the rock star of astronauts! (Pun intended: he has a PhD in geology!) I couldn’t wait to meet him in this small group, close setting!
The night before, StarMan had reminded me that the Shuttle was scheduled to land in Florida early Saturday morning, and he was debating whether or not we should set the wake-up alarm early enough to allow us to go out and view the reentry trail. He decided that reentry would happen a little to much after sunrise to be very visible, so we opted to just get a bit more sleep that morning.
The incessant ringing of a phone is what woke us the following morning. My parents in Ohio had been watching the morning news, and learned that the Shuttle had missed its landing time, and possibly had broken up somewhere over Texas. My parents, being parents, immediately assumed the absolute worse-case scenario with regards to my well-being, and were calling to make sure that the Shuttle had not hit my house. I exaggerate only a little bit! (Now perhaps you better understand why I am carefully considering how to give them news of my medical diagnosis). Stunned, we turned on the news, and with the rest of the country, learned of the demise of Columbia. Technically, I wasn’t an eye-witness to this tragedy, but had we planned to get up early enough to watch for the reentry in our back yard that morning, we would have seen it, just as our neighbors did. In fact, neighbors on both sides of our home reported hearing windows rattle, but I’m not sure if this phenomenon occurred during reentry of all shuttles over that part of the sky, or if the unusual circumstances caused it.
In any case, it was with tremendous sadness that we got dressed and made our way to the university that morning. Dr. Schmitt was gracious. He spoke briefly, but did not give the lecture that I am sure he had planned for us, and he departed the campus quickly, rather than staying the day and interacting with the faculty. I can’t imagine what he must have been thinking that morning, the emotions that he must have felt. To this day, I can’t look at that museum without remembering its grim opening day.
People often refer to these fallen brave souls as “heroes”. I may very well catch flak for what I’m about to say, but I think that society has abused/overused this word “hero”, watering down its significance. To me, a hero is a person who takes action to save the life of another, or to dramatically improve the quality of life for another, at the expense of their own well-being or perhaps even at the loss of their own life. In my opinion, a heroic act is, by definition, not a premeditated one, but rather performed “in the heat of the moment”, without the benefit of weighing the consequences and without having received any kind of compensation (financially or with accolades and recognition).
With regards to these fallen astronauts: I don’t think of these incredible individuals as heroes, but rather as courageous explorers. I am thinking of them tonight, even as I remember other space explorers with whom I have worked whom we lost this past year, much too soon: Dave was a gentle soul and clever physicist who helped make the NASA Kepler mission a reality. Unlike most scientists, he understood human nature as well as he understood the technical requirements for ultra-high-precision photometry required for planet-hunting, and he was generous in giving out pats-on-the-back and congratulatory encouragement. Janice was a veteran Shuttle astronaut, a smart and ambitious female role model, as well as a fellow vegetarian. Her incredibly unpretentious nature often made me forget that she wasn’t just “the girl next door”. I cherish the many “earth-based” conversations we had about food, relationships, gardening and house projects.
The following words are as poignant today as they were when uttered by our President in mourning 27 years ago, and seem like an appropriate way to close:
We will never forget them, not the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. –President Reagan, 28 January 1986