Please indulge me while I reminisce about the U.S. space program.
I’m not very old, but I’m old enough to remember the changes in attitude towards the program. I was born five years after the moon landing, so I have no recollection of that achievement. But like most kids growing up in the early 1980s, I was fascinated with space. I built model rockets. I subscribed to magazines about space. I was excited when I found out we would be studying outer space in my first-grade science class.
I remember playing outside in the early 1980s–it had to have been 1981 or 1982–when my aunt came out to the back porch and yelled, “Brian, David, come inside! The space shuttle’s landing!” So we ran in and watched the Columbia land. And I remember sometimes, when it happened on a school day, we’d watch a launch or a landing on TV.
In those days, all the takeoffs and landings of the Space Shuttle were televised. And I usually watched it, even when I wasn’t in school and didn’t have to. I loved this stuff.
But by the mid-1980s, the Space Shuttle became routine. You barely ever heard about it anymore. People took it for granted. They stopped televising it and it barely warranted mention on the news. The big news in the 1980s about the Space Shuttle was that the Soviets were trying to build one.
Then, in 1985, the Space Shuttle became newsworthy again. We were going to put a teacher onboard. And in January 1986, put her, along with six other astronauts, on the Challenger. None of our classes watched it on TV that day. It was too routine. It wasn’t news anymore when a Shuttle launched. There was a teacher onboard, but the launch didn’t look any different. The principal and the secretary and whoever was on break watched. I was in math class. I’d have rather watched the Challenger, but for all I know I was in the minority. Space wasn’t cool anymore. And, truth be told, the reason I would have wanted to watch the launch probably wasn’t for love of outer space, but because anything is better than math. It still is.
So there I was, sitting in math class, when the secretary called Mr. Ritter out of the room. A minute or so later, someone else came in and told us the Challenger had crashed.
I saw it on the news that night. One network showed the Soviet reaction. I remember that as vividly as I remember the tape of the Challenger. They were horrified. I was surprised. I guess I expected them to be partying. I thought they hated us.
There was an investigation. The Space Shuttle was on the news again a lot for a while, first with talk of finding another piece, later with talk about o-rings, and new designs. And when the Shuttles went back into service, it was a big deal again.
Then, for another decade and a half, it was routine again. You had to be a pretty hard-core space buff to give much thought to the Space Shuttle, and I wasn’t one. My interest in space had faded with my interest in dinosaurs.
I took space travel for granted. It wasn’t something I thought about. The Russians and the Chinese had problems sometimes, but the Russians didn’t have as much money as us and the Chinese hadn’t been doing it as long. I thought we had it mastered. I’ve heard people say we should get out of space and use that money to help the poor or fight AIDS or some other politically correct cause. I never agreed with that because money alone won’t solve either of those problems. I stayed out of the discussions that bemoaned the money we weren’t spending in space.
I’m not mourning the U.S. space program. If it’s important for us to be there, we’ll get back out there. It’s too early to tell if the Shuttle fleet is too old or if the design is too flawed or if it was just a matter of the Columbia’s tiles being damaged in launch and it not being able to withstand the temperature of re-entry.
Right now, I’m mostly concerned for the families of the seven people onboard. Overcoming setbacks is our specialty.