Wednesday, January 28, 2004


Where were you? What were you doing?

Beneath the launchpad of each and every liftoff lies a bedrock of numbers and physics and scientific principles. It is small surprise, then, that the tragedies of the space program are contained in eerily precise cycles: Eighteen years between Apollo 1 and Challenger. Seventeen years between Challenger and Columbia. The dates are compacted within a single gray week of winter.

President Reagan still expresses the impact better than I ever could. I was one of those schoolchildren he mentioned in the memorial speech reprinted below, sitting in my third grade reading group when the principal-- in that delicate Southern Ohio parlance-- announced that "the space shuttle had blown up".

"Oh, my God," said my teacher, and crossed the room in quick, horrified strides to turn on the black and white TV. I didn't understand that the astronauts had been killed and spent the rest of the day praying that they were all right.

"Did it hurt?" I asked my mother once I knew.

She said it might have felt like a hit on the back of the head, but the astronauts surely didn't feel a lot of pain.

"Did they know?"

Maybe the pilot did, she answered. But not for long.

Since then I've learned that the crew could not forseen it.... but they were probably still alive when their cabin slammed into the Atlantic Ocean. Alive, but blessedly not likely conscious due to a rapid drop in air pressure. This knowledge was difficult enough to absorb at twenty-two; it is God's hand that I didn't have it at nine.

That day changed me; it changed you. It hurt us.... and it made us better.

From 18 years ago:

Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we've never lost an astronaut in flight; we've never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

[To] the families of the seven: we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, "Give me a challenge, and I'll meet it with joy." They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us. 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.

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. 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've always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute. We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: ' Your dedication and professionalism have moved an impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it. '

There' s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.

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.'

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