February 4 , 2003
Waking up on Saturday morning, I was greeted with the headline of the New York Times' website. I had to rub my eyes and read again; was that a snafu, or did I just read something about the Challenger explosion? Once reality quickly set in, I had the sudden urge to check my watch and make sure it wasn't 1986.
Sadly, the realization of the here and now was staring me in the face. Another shuttle, another seven astronauts taken away in a horrific fireball. Even now, days later, it all seems so unreal. Inside, I felt as though I had taken a hard punch to my gut. I cannot honestly say what most Americans were feeling, and are feeling now; that's just what it felt to me.
I remember back when the Challenger was destroyed. I was in an eighth-grade classroom - whatever subject I can't remember - when one of the teachers burst into the room, exclaiming something of how the space shuttle exploded after launch. Minutes later, the Principal relayed the message to all the students in the prison. Err, school. Whatever. The Challenger was gone, in any case, just like that.
This was something that was very hard for young kids to process, especially children who were born after the glory days of the Space Race: Sputnik, John Glenn, the spacewalk, the Moon Landing, Skylab. We had read about the risks of space travel, and were taught about the three American astronauts who died atop a rocket. But this all seemed so, well, possible. Maybe the Russians had failures, but not us. We were the ones who conquered space. Watching those old "Star Trek" reruns, it was no surprise that the Starship Enterprise was essentially an American vessel. Such science-fiction seemed almost inevitable; we would be playing chess with the HAL computer in no time.
The explosion of Challenger took all that away in an instant. In that violent flash, we were shown how arrogant and confident and vulnerable we were. On that day, and the months after, it almost seemed as though the space dream was fading away. Maybe this was just something we did back in the '60s, to show up the Communists.
But we returned to space. When the first shuttle launch after the disaster took place, it seemed the whole world was watching. It probably was. When a new space shuttle was built, the whole world watched again. After a time, though, we stopped watching. The whole routine of flying into space was just that, a routine. Again.
Now, we lost the Columbia, the original, and I'm feeling numb again. I remember twenty years ago, when the Columbia first launched, when it first orbited the Earth, when it first landed. It was amazing. I was only eight years old, but I knew I was watching history; such moments are rare.
But what happened? What have we really done since that day? When reading about the loss of Columbia, observers remark how casually the younger generation seems to react. Sure, the young people are sad, in a general way, but there's nothing approaching the feeling we felt before. Why is that? Have we become desensitized to violence all around us? Have we become so conditioned by the mass media, the 24-hour news channels that perpetually feed us fear and dread? Have we simply become numb after the shock of 9/11? Must everything come back to that?
The harder part is still to come. We will, once again, I fear, learn the details of the explosion, of why those foam tiles failed, of why Columbia's left wing suffered a sharp rise in temperature, of why nobody except everyone watching noticed the same left wing take damage in takeoff. We will, just as with Challenger, learn of a NASA increasingly willing to cut corners and ignore safety warnings; increasingly pressured to function with less and less money; increasingly desperate to grab the attention of an American public that has tuned out, closing outer space, closing out the world, closing in on themselves.
Sure, we have an International Space Station, but what else? What happened to the Moon? What happened to Mars? What happened to the Solar System? What happened to our national sense of purpose, of adventure? America used to be more than SUVs and big-screen televisions. What happened to us?