I was twenty-six years old when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. My wife was terribly pregnant with our first child. She saw it happen on live TV. The soap opera she was watching was preempted for the launch, as they were in those days. The countdown proceeded as normal. The shuttle lifted off and exploded some seventy seconds later.
Nobody had ever seen a shuttle explode before so when it did, the cameras just kept rolling and the TV announcers weren't quite sure what to say, because they didn't know what they'd just seen.
The baby started kicking, and my wife was afraid her water might break. She got up to call me at work at RCA, but I was out at lunch sitting in the parking lot of a restaurant called The Boardroom in Somerville, N.J. listening to the replay of the launch with Howard and Lou and Mike and we heard the words, "Obviously a major malfunction," and sat glued to WCBS AM 880 New York all news.
Howard said, "What was that?"
None of us knew for sure what they meant by "major malfunction", but it was damn easy to guess. In general, rockets don't generate the aura of "malfunction". Malfunction is what your refrigerator freezer does when it fails to keep a temperature gradient and the frozen burgers go bad. Malfunction is when a spark plug misfires and your car makes noise at highway speed.
In the case of 1986 NASA, "malfunction" meant "catastrophic explosion killing everyone aboard", which strangely enough, we all knew even though we were staring at a red plastic line behind some numbers on a car radio.
When I got back to the office there was no message for me from my wife, because we didn't have voice mail and the admin didn't answer anyone's phone except for my boss's. But it wouldn't have mattered because I was standing in a crowd of people four deep in front of a bank of televisions in the RCA employee store watching the shuttle explode over and over, and listening to newscasters hypothesize about the crew's chances for survival, which we all knew then, and know now, were zero.
When I got home that night, my wife told me how she'd watched the shuttle and at the moment of the explosion the baby started kicking hard, and then harder. So she called me thinking it might be time for us to get ready to go to the hospital. But then the baby calmed down, and she watched the shuttle coverage for the rest of the day, because that was all that was on.
The shuttle exploding was the most horrible thing I could imagine, and even now, eighteen years later, it still bothers me. The space program was the single reason I loved science as much as I did. I idolized astronauts, even as an adult. How could a shuttle explode? What must it have been like for those poor astronauts?
My daughter was born two weeks later, which in juxtaposition, provided some bizzare contrast to my life which was to continue, pretty much forever.
About three years later I'd moved my family to California and was working at Intel and Howard came over to visit with his friend, Glenn, who Howard introduced as his "partner". I was still living a life shrouded in engineering and had no idea that "partner" was not a business term, so at dinner Howard had to spell it out for me that he was gay, which somehow my wife had always known but had never said anything about because she knew I'd tell her she was crazy. I'd tell her that Howard couldn't be gay because I'd surely have known it having worked so closely with him for seven years, who did she think she was kidding?
But then Howard told me and we toasted he and Glenn's having decided to tell all their family and friends and co workers. And I was happy he told me and happy for him and Glenn, and very disturbed that I knew so little of the people around me.
"Remember when the space shuttle blew up when we were at lunch that day?" I asked him after our toast, mostly because even though I'd known him for almost ten years, I couldn't think of what to say to him next.
"That was the worst thing that ever happened," he said, or something like it.
It was one of those things that we were always going to remember where we were when it happened, and I would remember sitting in the car with Howard and Lou and Mike listening to the radio. It seemed life was like that--measured in peak events of tragedy or happiness. I will always remember the shuttle exploding, like I will always remember 9/11 and how my mother came to the front door to call us inside from playing when Robert Kennedy was shot.
Then between these time-defining events my wife had a baby and Howard had to figure out how to tell us he was gay and Lou decided not to get on flight 93 on September 11, 2001, and Mike went off to be Mike and something else happened that became the rest of our lives.
I was thinking about love today and for some reason it reminded me about the space shuttle Challenger. Sure, we just had another shuttle disaster. Columbia this time. It came apart in flames over the southern United States.
I was 44 when that one went, and so my whole outlook was different than the 1986 incident. Back then, my friend Rich had ordered a copy of the presidental report. It cost him $25, which was mostly for shipping, because it was big. Turned out, the book was "free" to all citizens of the United States, you just had to pay the $25 shipping, which was a whole lot of money for a book, and I could barely afford breakfast cereal, so I didn't buy a copy of the free book.
There were lots of pictures in the book. Rich loaned it to me one weekend and I went through it reading the whole issue with frozen o-rings and all.
There was a picture in the book I can't get out of my head. By now everyone on earth has seen the shot looking upward, the single brilliant white column of rocket exhaust terminating in an orangish ball of chemical propellants, the twisted arcs of the two stray solid rocket boosters curling outward in the distance, and a rain of debris trailing streamers of blue-white.
In one presidential report picture, one of the many blown-up pieces of space craft shrapnel arcing downward to the sea is quite clearly the crew compartment of the shuttle, intact, looking like someone simply hacked the rear of the craft off the nose.
I've always wanted to know what it was like for them, falling to the sea with no engines or control surfaces to glide. Just falling, probably alive, trying to make things work that weren't going to. Two and a half minutes, feeling a normal 1G gravity, hanging face down from the straps watching the sea get closer.
Would they think it was worth it, having become astronauts? Would they be scared or would they be calculating escape routes?
Two an a half minutes is a long time. I tried to hold my breath for that long. I couldn't do it.
When I went to Antarctica this year, I thought of myself as an astronaut. Helicoptering around the desolate continent was as close to an astronaut as I'd ever become. At one point a helo I was in hit a bunch of turbulence and the pilot made some sudden maneuvers that made my stomach sink into my heels. I nearly got sick.
It scared me. Indeed. And it made me wonder about crashing, because just last year a helo crashed near where we were and everyone remembered it. Our hearts were pounding. The pilot was calm,but the first words out of his mouth were, "See that brown sludge on Lake Fryxell? That's jet-A."
I decided it didn't make me any less happy to an Antarctic explorer. It wasn't going to stop me. When I remembered that incident I knew why thinking about love made me think about the shuttle and all the things surrounding it. Funny how the mind works.
I bet if those shuttle astronauts had survived, and you gave them the chance to try it again, if you said, "OK, this one WON'T explode. I promise on a stack of bibles," they be begging you to get back on.
Because life is empty if nothing here is worth it.
Something in your life, has to be worth your life, to make you want to live. Your family. Your friends. Taking the risk of having your friends accept what you really are. Having a child. Your planet. The future. Love.
That's why those defining moment in time are so important.
Riding the space shuttle, orbiting the earth, touching the infinite--yes, indeed--that is worth your life.
So I bet that at least one shuttle astronaut of Challenger or Columbia, as it was coming apart around him or her, must have been thinking, "I hope this doesn't disqualify me for the next launch."