A Teacher in Space

A Teacher in Space

On January 28 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded moments after lift-off.  On board along with regular crew members was a high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, selected from thousands of applicants to be the first teacher in space. 

Aired February 1986, WPR’s Morning Edition

Eager relatives, space buffs, students, watched the sky as the great rocket leaped up into the heavens in great puffs of smoke. Higher and higher it climbed. Those watching on the ground tilted back their heads to see a white trail against the bright blue of the sky. Then came disaster. Explosion. Fireball.

Didn’t we have the strange feeling that we had seen it before? On Saturday morning cartoons? The starship Galactica. Princess Leia watching as Alderon and her father explode in air. The space ship vaporized into a fine dust, fighting the evil planet. But these images were real, not fiction. A few moments before there had been a real space ship serviced by real mechanics, and inside it real women and men.

How have we dealt with this nightmare of our imagination come true, this set back to a space program so closely identified with our national pride? What does our reaction say about our resources, our character, our future?

“Obviously we have a major malfunction, “said the NASA official from behind his TV console. “We have no down link.” We have come a long way since a horrified reporter sobbed as he watched the Hindenburg break up and burn.

“There is a family tree of possible modes of failure,” another NASA official informed us, “We have constituted a debris committee and are analyzing the data bank.” A day of mourning was declared.

The day wore on as we stayed home from work and sat huddled before our TV sets. We watched the tape play over and over. We listened to experts speculate about what could have gone wrong. We were assured. The conquest of space would continue. Just as soon as we found the malfunction.  We listened to chemists and physicists debate the inflammability of fuels, the construction of booster rockets. Tapes were shown over and over so we could watch the faces of the school teacher’s parents as they stared up at the explosion from the ground. We returned again and again to examine some strange flashes of light that came just before the explosion. We counted pound by pound the bits of plastic and picked up out of the sea, and heard the promise made by the debris committee that each bit, including flesh or bone, would be kept under lock and key.

Was there something lacking as we sat there hour after hour? Peoples of the past looked up to the sky for omens, for inspiration, for a sense of eternity. Might there be a lesson up there that has nothing to do with physics or chemistry, something it would take a poet, a priest, a sibyl to make us see.  And what might such a lesson be? That computers no matter how well programmed can never give us omnipotence? That we will never be equal to the stars? That any thrust into space must be tempered with concern for the earth? That we have forgotten to speak, except in alienated jargon that papers over emotions that might give strength as well as bravado, wisdom as well as expertise. It may not be the lesson that Christa McAuliffe planned to teach her students but it may be a lesson worth learning.