Originally posted on Life on the Outside, 27 January 2006.
Space Shuttle Challenger is lost, 28 January 1986
Tomorrow will be the twentieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster, in which that spacecraft and her crew of seven were lost.
I was twelve at the time, and enthralled by every detail of space exploration, both real and imaginary. Later that year, I was allowed to stay up late to watch televised images of Halley’s comet on one of its rare approaches to Earth (in fact, observing the comet from orbit had been part of Challenger’s unfulfilled mission).
The loss of Challenger made a deep impression on me, in the way that certain events in childhood do, perhaps because they occur at a time when we are unable to resolve them by assigning them a place and a precedence in our view of the world.
Of course, I knew that what had happened was terrible and sad, but more than anything, what happened to Challenger was vertiginously shocking. In the now famous television images, Challenger is suddenly, sickeningly enveloped by a peach-tinged cocoon of smoke. Then, its contrail, which has been proud and steady, bifurcates crazily. In the next instant, smaller tendrils spring from the smoke. These carry little of Challenger’s original velocity, and curl out only briefly before declining, falling: debris.
There were aftershocks too; subtler repercussions that nagged and persisted like a symptom, insidiously suggesting someting. What was it?
It was more than the dutiful sombreness with which, at twelve, I contemplated the suffering and obliteration of the seven astronauts. It was a new and heartbreaking acquaintance with something that is as elemental to the universe as hydrogen, but which is concealed from children for a long time and which, I admit, I will try to conceal from you if I can: things just happen.
Things happen whether you were expecting them or not. Things happen to people whether they deserve them or not. Even if you’re an astronaut, or a teacher who has, improbably, managed to become an astronaut out of bravery, curiosity and love of knowledge; even if you’ve done the thousands of difficult and frightening things you must do before you find yourself lying on your back being thrust into the pale, emptying sky and the start of everything you’ve ever wanted to see and know; even then, when you are as complete and worthy and noble and loved as you will ever be, things can happen to you. Bad things.
It’s hard to say how much of this I could have articulated in 1986, how much of it is the inauthentic accretion of adult sophistication. Perhaps I felt nothing but a strange kind of shiver, as if I had strayed into the shadow of things I would one day learn.
I wonder about this because I know that our memories, even the strongest ones–perhaps especially the strongest ones–are unreliable. We reshape them constantly, sometimes over many years. What happened mingles with what we wish had happened, and what we wish had not. Details are merged or elided. Significance swells.
I had a memory, convincing in its detail, of coming home from school early to watch the Challenger launch, of closing the venetian blinds in our old sitting room against the bright sunlight, of sitting rapt, with the sofa to myself in the unaccustomed quiet of a weekday afternoon. Such are the details we summon when we draw on these memories, when we say, I remember where I was that day.
But this memory, it can’t be right. January 28th, 1986 was a Tuesday, so I would have been at school, that much is sound.
But Challenger’s final launch began at 16:37 GMT. In those days, school would have finished at 15:00, so there would have been no need to come home early, even if I had secured permission, which was, knowing your grandmother, in itself unlikely. And there would have been no bright sunlight to close the blinds against at 16:37 on January 28th; it would have been getting dark. Finally, it seems unlikely that I could have seen live coverage of the launch.
As James Olberg of MSNBC points out in this interesting article about the myths surrounding Challenger, relatively few people even in the United States would have seen live coverage of the event. It’s possible that BBC television, which we received in Ireland, might have carried the broadcast, but it’s unlikely. Perhaps someone who knows for sure will let me know.
In the meantime, I’ll pass this memory on to you just as it is. Perhaps I imagined it. Perhaps several memories have been distilled, leaving just an essence of how it felt to be twelve and to feel the first intimations of the world’s terror and chaos and majesty in the brightness and quiet of a schoolday afternoon.
I can’t say if or when you will first feel these things. You might be older than twelve, or a good deal younger. You might not care all that much about space ships. But perhaps you too will come to remember a day, a vivid and almost palpable day, when the surrounding brightness flickered as a shadow passed, a shadow of something broken and falling to Earth, or of something I can’t yet imagine.
And perhaps you will think of that day as the day when you began a crossing from one world into the next, when you swallowed hard, straightened your still-narrow shoulders, looked up into the vast, unanswering sky and began to become yourself.