30 years ago – more than half my life – I sat getting ready to go to work. To go to the dance studio where I’d spend the day immersed in music, movement and smiling faces. As I was drying my hair the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off its pad behind me. I watched in the mirror, the familiar contrail arc cutting its way through the Florida morning.
And then it happened.
I couldn’t even hear the news, the hair dryer – dropped to the floor – was still running. But I knew. The space program had been near to my heart for years. My dad had equipment on that ship. And it had just split into two, its graceful contrail twisting into an ugly Hydra-headed monster that meant just one thing.
They were gone. ABC didn’t say so of course. There was confusion, then a “search” and an “investigation”. But those who knew anything at all about how space travel worked knew. Knew that these astronauts likely weren’t suited, that there was virtually no path of survival.
The hair dryer ran, droning on like a small engine. Tireless in its insistence of normalcy.
I went to the studio, to the music and the smiling faces. No one looked alarmed. No one knew. No one had seen. A student came in later in the afternoon, a gentleman who worked for Dupont. He looked at me and said, “Did you see?” I nodded my head. We went on to do the Foxtrot and the Cha-Cha, not mentioning it again. Normalcy cried for attention, ever louder in its insistence to be heard. It had paired up with Ignorance and was winning the day. Bliss was smiling.
Later that night when I got home I felt extraordinarily alone. Something huge had happened, but barely anyone in my immediate circle – save my one student – seemed to really know or care.
I sat down at my computer and went to Compuserve. I logged in: 76657,220
That was me on the nascent Internet. No cute name, no profile picture: simply a bunch of numbers and that comma. There were no pictures, no sounds, just the Courier typeface. Scrolling through the many subgroups I found the one I was looking for – NASA. I entered the room.
There were at least 200 in the room, an immense gathering by standards of the day. Looking back I’m surprised Compuserve’s servers handled the traffic. It may well have been one of the largest groups ever at that time. Chats and comments were flying back and forth. I recognized a lot of names, names of astronauts, a NASA assistant administrator. Several science writers, both fiction and non-fiction. There were some famous names in the room. Even someone who claimed to be with Morton Thiokol.
Just talking. Disbelief, the loss, what kind of setback would it be… Sympathy for the families, fears of cutbacks being “justified”. Speculation, more than a little early blame-placing. The ocassional conspiracy theory. I was practiced at keeping up with Compuserve chats, but I’d never seen one of this size or speed.
30 years ago.
What, I wonder, would the Challenger 7 think of the state we find ourselves in now? Hitching rides to the ISS for millions on Russian rockets while our own shuttles sit mothballed in museums? I imagine that wherever they are they must be awfully frustrated looking down on the mess we’ve made of their space program.
On the other side of that equation is the internet. The InterWebs as my son sometimes calls it. My children have never known a world where they didn’t have a screen to anywhere, anyone or anything they wanted or needed. A digital thread that binds the world together, growing in many ways from that small chat room on Compuserve 30 years ago.
How can we have come so far and yet stood so still at the same time?
And where will we be 30 years hence
Will the Internet still be “the Wild West”, open to one and all for the taking and the ingenuity, or will it become an over-regulated government program that stalls and shrivels?
Will we still be paying adversaries for passage to our own space station, or will it have long crumbled to dust and fallen back to earth?
Will we ever fulfill the promise of the Challenger 7 to explore and reach past our grasp? Or will we turn back in on ourselves, complacent on one small dot in the heavens.
These questions may seem made for philosophers and kings, but they’re not. They’re for each of us, for everyone to question within the grand scope of The Future, and also within the smaller scope of our own futures. Will we reach and out and explore? Or will we be satisfied? Will we build on what we’ve already built, or let it crumble to dust?
That’s the real promise of the Challenger 7. To reach out, and to keep reaching.
We’ll never forget you…
- Dick Scobee, Commander
- Michael Smith, Pilot
- Ron McNair, Mission Specialist
- Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
- Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
- Greg Jarvis, Payload Specialist
- Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist