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Touching the Face of God: A Writer Remembers the Challenger Disaster


It had started as any other day. Up early for breakfast, and then out the door to catch the bus to school. There was nothing overly special about the day, except for a scheduled space shuttle launch. By that time, space shuttle launches were fairly common place, and didn't garner much attention normally. But, this one was different. Today would mark the first civilian passenger on a space shuttle mission. Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire, would be among the seven-member crew flying skyward that morning.

At that age, I was enamored with the United States space program. The Kennedy Space Center had been one of my favorite family vacation spots. I read about the moon, the space shuttle, and anything else related to the program. I was a wide-eyed teenager with dreams of some day traveling to the stars on wings like eagles. The disappoint for me that morning was that I wouldn't get to see the launch.

At 11:38 a.m., I was in the school's print shop, waiting for my teacher, Mr. Armstrong, to begin class. He had been sitting in his office in the back of the print shop fiddling with the single computer that all of the students used for completing their assignments in print shop. I'm not sure how the news reached us, but somehow, word had got around that there had been an issue with the space shuttle launch. As more details filtered in, my heart grew heavier.

Not only did I feel grief for those who lost their lives, but also for the program itself. I knew that a catastrophe of this nature had the potential to derail years of advances in space exploration, which is what it did. The space shuttle program was halted for more than two years while NASA worked to determine what had caused Challenger to explode.

What I remember the most from that day was the words of President Reagan as he addressed the nation that evening. He said, "We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers." He went on to say, "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

I think what held the most impact was when Reagan quoted the floral language from a poem called "High Flight", a work by John Gillespie Magee. Reagan concluded his speech by saying, "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

Every generation has a moment in history that becomes its "Do you remember where you were when…" moment. For me this was one of them. It's been 30 years since the Challenger tragedy, and I can still see the moment in my mind. And, tonight, I shall raise a glass to the seven who 'touched the face of God'. Here's to Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.


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