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Friday, January 28, 2005

Of Dreams Lost...

Darth reminds us (well, points out that Michele reminds us) that today is the 19th anniversary of the Challenger accident. Was it really that long ago?

A little background. When I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to be a scientist and walk on Mars. OK, not just when I was little. My first major in college was astrophysics. (Then I met calculus, but that's another story.)

My love of space began in 3rd grade, when Miss Hall taught a science unit about outer space. I don't know what she said or what she did, but she did something right. My interest in space started then, and just grew over time.

When the STS first launched in 1981, we watched it on tv at school. I collected all the information on the shuttle that I could. I had The Space Shuttle Operator's Manual memorized. And, in the following 5 years, I never missed a launch or landing (I was mysteriously sick and unable to go to school those days. If my parents and teachers ever figured it out, they never mentioned it.) In the spring of 1985, I went to Space Camp Level II (now called Space Academy), where I was the first female commander of the year, and I received the "Outstanding Camper" award (which my friends quickly reminded me meant that I was the biggest "space case" there that week.)

So, that morning in 1986, I was as school. "Huh? I thought you said that you stayed home to watch the launches," I hear you ask. Why, yes, I did say that, didn't I? Well, you see, I had checked the weather forcast, and I knew (or thought I knew) that they wouldn't launch because it was too cold. So, I went to school. Walking through the halls, I heard someone crack a joke about NASA standing for "need another seven astronauts." The person who told the joke then saw me and immediately apologized. I asked them what they were talking about, and the response was "you don't know?" I went into my next class and asked my teacher what was going on. Mrs. Henry told me there was an accident, but she didn't know the details. I asked to be excused, and I called my mom.

I remember standing in the hall at the pay phone, crying, yelling at my mom that it had to be wrong, because they couldn't have launched. It was too cold. There had to be a mistake. There was no mistake.

I spent the rest of the day at school, but I didn't stay in any of my classes. As soon as the teachers would see me, they'd hand me a pass to the library. I spent the day in front of the tv. Shortly after I got home from school, the guy I was dating at the time (who lived in another town and went to a different high school) showed up at my house, not only to make sure that I was ok, but to try to talk me out of being an astronaut because it's "too damn dangerous."

As time went on, as more information was made public, I have to admit that I was angry. But not at the right person or group of people. I was angry at Christa McAuliffe, the teacher/astronaut that was on that flight. I blamed her, just because she was there. In my (immature) mind, if there had not been all of the publicity surrounding her, they would have been more willing to postpone the flight. They would have waited until the weather warmed up. The O ring wouldn't have failed. No one would have died. But it wasn't her fault. I know that now. But I still feel bad that I blamed her for so long. That wasn't fair.

Spring Break, 1988, my freshman year of college, I went back to Space Academy (I think they call it Advanced Academy now). While I was there, we watched an engineering video of the accident and the after-accident reports. Come to find out, I was right. Because of the temperature, the O Ring had become rigid and did not perform properly. It was a design flaw that the right people had not noticed until it was too late. It still strikes me as ironic that a 16 year old girl knew, but the people who could have pulled the plug didn't.

I wasn't the hot shot that time at the Academy - my dreams of going into space were already fading slowly into the background. I was trying to find my new dream. I won't lie to you and tell you that my dream of going into space has been totally lost. If given the chance, oh, yeah, I'd go. But I'm a bit older, hopefully a lot wiser.

Flying into space, conquering that (last?) frontier, is the dream of a lot of people. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on who you ask), those "space cases" who dream of weightlessness and walking on a dusty red planet are constrained by those whose feet are firmly planted on the Earth and who have to worry about money and politics and public relations.

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