Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Twenty-nine years

I got to do a heck of a lot of cool and fun stuff in my navy career. We've all heard about the guy (or gal, of course) who has occasion to think, "I can't believe they're actually paying me to do this!"

Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt.

There's the down side, too, and I've written about that.

As I look back and think about all the wonderful and amazing experiences, and about all the tragic and heartbreaking experiences, I realize that none of it would have meant anything were it not for the people I shared those experiences with. For those who serve in this arena, personal interactions, even at the most superficial level, carry a hell of a lot of weight.

So. Twenty-nine years ago today...

The sun rose over an uncharacteristically chill and frosty Cape Canaveral on Tuesday, Jan. 28, 1986. A futuristic rocket ship, poised atop launch pad 39-B, stood silent and inert except for the wisps of vapor seeping from its vents. The gantry and associated equipment dripped with rare icicles and the 26 degree air was close and still.

There was a sense of anticipation in the air. The day would mark the twenty-fifth space shuttle mission, and launch was scheduled in only a few hours. The hushed atmosphere was charged with pre-launch tension, and as with so many previous Cape Canaveral dawns, the very fabric of the air was shot through with greatness.

For a lot of Americans, including literally millions of school kids, Jan. 28 began as a banner day, filled with hope and joy and anticipation. Happy youngsters would gather in front of school televisions across the nation, don party hats and clutch noisemakers, and breathlessly await the moment when they could cheer as America’s first Teacher in Space sped on her way to orbit.

Suspended in that moment, the world had no inkling that it would turn out to be a very hard, very sad day.

In Virginia Beach, the weather was almost balmy. Sunrise found me working in the emergency room at Naval Air Station Oceana. We were busy that morning, but not so busy I that couldn’t make time to watch the televised launch.

Mike Smith, Challenger’s pilot, was a 41 year-old Naval Aviator who had flown A-6 Intruders before joining NASA. In a sense, he was the prototypical astronaut, a military man who had survived the rigors of flying tactical jets in combat and in the unforgiving arena of test piloting.

Judith Resnik was a 36 year-old Ph.D. Engineer who had been one of the first five women selected by NASA for astronaut training.

I met Smith and Resnik in 1985, not long after Oceana was made an emergency landing facility for shuttle flights. They were the astronaut part of a NASA team briefing air station personnel on shuttle operations and contingency plans.

I enjoyed working with them and had the opportunity to chat informally with both. They were friendly and filled with keen and infectious enthusiasm. They seemed to represent the future of American space exploration, a commingling of military and civilian skills and expertise. The best of the old school and the best of the new.

I was especially smitten with Resnik, or as she introduced herself, "JR". In addition to being an astronaut, she was supremely confident, smart, beautiful, and had the deadliest dry wit and sense of humor I’d ever known. Meeting astronauts was an enormous treat for me, but meeting and visiting with JR was one of the very most enjoyable experiences of my life.

So it was with a great deal of pride and anticipation that I watched the first 73 seconds of Challenger’s flight that January morning. The explosion that ended the flight was a savage, gut-wrenching shock.

Having witnessed the death of friends and shipmates, and having participated in the sad business of recovering remains and investigating mishaps, I was honestly surprised by the intensity of my reaction to the loss of Challenger. The long unfolding of that devastating moment was incredibly painful.

To this day I’m still not sure why my reaction was so powerful, why the hurt was so overwhelming. The pain has eased as the years have gone by, but as I write this and contemplate the events of twenty-nine years past, I find the pain is still sharp and my grief still profound.

I can’t tell Mike and JR how much I appreciated our all-too-brief acquaintance, our nascent friendship. But I can tell you, in this insignificant space, that despite the pain I still carry, despite the ache of loss, my life has been more rich and filled with more joy and wonder than it would have been had my path never crossed the paths of Mike Smith and Judith Resnik.

The crew of Challenger’s last flight. Front from left: Mike Smith, Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, Ron McNair. Back from left: Ellison “El” Onizuka, Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith “JR” Resnik.

1 comment:

  1. Our nation's astronauts have always held a special place in my heart.

    I'll never forget that day.