A Day Late: Remembering Fallen Heroes

Yesterday was the NASA Day of Remembrance, honoring the fallen heroes, the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, and space shuttle Columbia.

Sadly, I’d forgotten about it until I read about it this morning, otherwise I would have written about it in my post last night.

But I write about it now.   I have vivid memories of the TV coverage of both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies.  I was in school on January 28, 1986, and I was a newlywed when the Columbia disaster occurred.  Although the Apollo 1 fire happened years before I was born, I remember reading about the members of that crew, along with those of other crews/missions.  Actually, as a teen, I read everything I could about space exploration, NASA, and astronomy– and for a brief time considered a career as an astronaut.  I soon realized that I didn’t have “the right stuff,” but I remained enamored with the astronauts, and still have a great deal of respect for them.

It’s hard to believe that a few days ago was the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 tragedy, and that it’s been over 30 years since Challenger.  Just as my parents can tell me where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news that JFK had been shot, I can remember exactly what I was doing when I heard about Challenger.  My French class had just finished.  Most of the students had already left the classroom on their way to the cafeteria for lunch, but a few of us were still packing up before going to lunch when the librarian came running into the classroom with the horrible news. I had stayed to help my best friend, who was wearing a knee brace because of a roller skating injury, and couldn’t easily carry all of her books.  I remember the shocked looks that we exchanged, and that Challenger was all that we talked about at lunch.  After lunch, we didn’t have any lectures or regular lessons.  The teachers seemed as shocked as the students were.  Several classes gathered in the library to watch the news on TV, and we watched until the end of the school day.

Although I didn’t see the tragedy live, I feel as if I did, after having seen the footage so many times, not only in the hours and days after the tragedy, but in the years since.  That Challenger launch was one of the first that I didn’t see live.  Before that, watching the space shuttle launches was a big deal, and if they occurred on a school day, then we would watch whatever TV coverage was available of the event.  I guess by January 1986, the shuttle launches had lost a bit of their novelty, so the school administrators/teachers didn’t bother to preempt regular subjects (unless the launch happened to be when we had science class).

I wonder if my children will have any event in their lives such as the Challenger disaster or 9/11.  I pray that they don’t, but it seems that every generation has its own defining tragedy.  I also wonder if they will ever get as excited about an event as I did about the shuttle launches.  The last space shuttle mission occurred when my first two children were in grade school and my third child was a preschooler; sadly, they don’t have any specific memories of any shuttle missions, although my oldest shares my interest in science fiction, which I think is a natural extension of my interest in the real science of space.  Perhaps my children will live to see a successful mission to Mars.

As a dreamer, I look forward to seeing further missions of space exploration, whether from NASA or from private organizations.  I hope that we never forget the pioneers who paved the way, including the crew members of Apollo 1 and the Challenger and Columbia disasters.  Rest in peace Gus Grissom, Ed White, Roger Chaffee, Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnick, Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Michael Anderson, David Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel Clark,  Rick Husband, William McCool, and Ilan Ramon.