Thursday, January 27, 2011

High in the sunlit silence

I remember so well my excitement about the first space shuttle flight. I was 13 when Columbia took off, and in seventh grade. But I have a better recollection of when she landed because I was at school that afternoon and the teachers, bless them, believed it important that we see the space shuttle's return to Earth.

My classmates and I, with some of us thrilled by the momentous occasion and others just happy to be missing class, crammed into the tiny library and huddled around the no-bigger-than-20-inches television screen. At least it was color. I can't recall the TV station, though I remember some newsman saying, "And there she is!" when Columbia came onscreen.

It felt magical, both the sight of Columbia landing and the notion of where she had come from. If we could do this, what couldn't we do?

My fascination with the space shuttle program continued though, like most of America, the missions became in a manner "routine" -- thrilled, I would watch the shuttle go up safely and then thrilled, I'd watch it come down safely, each time.
 
We got 20 or so of these "routine" flights before our hearts were shattered by the realities of the dangers of space flight.
 
I wasn't in school on Jan. 28, 1986. It was yet another snow day during my senior year in high school. My older sister happened to be home as well, with no classes that day. We were both in socks and sweats, she on the couch and I on the chair sitting to the right side of the TV.
 
We had the television on, of course, and were chitchatting away while awaiting the launch of Challenger. We heard the many mentions of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space, and just kept on talking during the countdown. We turned quiet to take in liftoff before starting to natter on again.
 
Then there were the words: "Go at throttle up." Then there was ... confusion. It wasn't instantaneous, the realization of catastrophe. It was, "What happened?" and "That looked like ..." and "Where is the shuttle?" And then it was silence and horrible pictures of loved ones gathered on the viewing stand and the broadcast words "obviously a major malfunction" before finally the dawning that there was no longer a space shuttle Challenger. It just wasn't there.

This was one of those days people talk about. Game-changers, life-changers. Events of national or international impact that are felt on the most personal of levels.

We all know what we were doing on Sept. 11, 2001. Like many, my mother still remembers even minute details about the day President Kennedy was shot. There are others, I'm sure, who recall every detail of when the Berlin Wall fell, or the day the hostages were freed from Iran, or the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia. Perhaps even a few remain with us who have the bombing of Pearl Harbor stamped indelibly on their memories.

For me, the first of these game-changing days was Jan. 28, 1986. An entire day that consisted of only 73 seconds.

To this day, for all the right reasons, my heart races at the sight of a shuttle launch. But to this day, my heart jumps at the words "Go at throttle up" because of the horror that followed that one shattering time.


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