When in the Spring of '86 I became one of the final 40 contestants in the initiative to send a journalist up in space, the loss of the Challenger was still so recent the bodies had not yet been found on the ocean floor. Maybe that's why the TV crew who came to my door the day my name was announced seemed so eager. "She even looks like Christa!" said one of them. "Have her children cling to her skirts!" said another.
We were all still in a kind of shock I think and maybe that's why that news crew was trying to frame things in such a dramatic way. We hadn't yet adjusted to the new reality. Masters of technology that we imagined ourselves to be, we thought we were in control of everything. It's a notion we humans cling to fixedly and relinquish with great reluctance.
Picture being on a plane as it taxis toward takeoff, a rolling rec room in most of our minds in which folks read and doze and look out the window -- until it picks up speed and the trees blur and the tarmac goes fuzzy to your sight and somewhere inside, all your instincts as a land animal cry out in disbelief that this big-bellied metal hull will ever lift and soar in flight. The tiny bubble in the carpenter's level of your brain leans way over to one side, and a small frightened voice deep inside you asks of your death, 'Now? Today? This very minute?' Then the plane straightens and climbs higher and with relief you turn back to your magazine, thinking, 'Not yet then. Not this sight the last these eyes will behold.'
In the months before Challenger flew, teacher and Mission Specialist Christa McAuliffe said in her motherly and reassuring way, "It will be like taking a bus." But it isn't like taking a bus and it never was, as every career astronaut knows. It's like riding a Roman candle.
Back when this first crew died what shocked us most was that we all watched it happen: one minute, seven hale and joshing Americans; the next, a blank sky. And then between that lost mission and the loss of Columbia in '03 came that other event when, in an eyeblink, two mighty steel towers gave way to blank sky too.
I was just 36 when I applied to be the first journalist to fly in Low Earth Orbit. In the days just after January 28th I remember writing in the Boston Globe that we owed God a death as Shakespeare says, and that the Challenger Seven had paid theirs. They now flew free, I felt, beyond caring about control, or planning, or how many days might pass until a tiny planet tips enough to bring what its creatures call Spring.
I think of them today. Oh I think of them.
"Give me your hand," the black box caught one of them saying as their capsule hurtled quickly downward and the phrase is lovely, holding as it does all we can offer one another in love, or friendship, or at the Hour of Our Death. All, and perhaps enough.