Space Shuttle Colombia (2003 Essay)

Space Shuttle Colombia breaks up upon Earth’s reentry on February 1, 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 lost space 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 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, Gemini, Apollo, 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, impossible. Maybe the Soviets 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 a science-fiction future seemed almost inevitable; we would be playing chess with the HAL computer in no time. It was only a matter of 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 all of was a dream, a cultural myth. Maybe this was just something America did back in the 1960s to show up the Communists.

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