Challenger – 30 Years Later; What the non-commemorations say about America

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STS 51 liftoff (NASA)

Today should be treated the way we view anniversaries of Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and JFK Assassination from where I sit. On January 28, 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger exploded at Cape Canaveral shortly after takeoff. The crew of seven on the STS-51 mission perished immediately.

Admittedly, I am biased, having grown up in a NASA family and having attended a dozen or Shuttle launches in my lifetime.  But for a long time the Challenger explosion was one of those events when everyone recalled where they were when the news came to them. For me I was a sixth grader, bookish and obsessive about the space program. The tragedy was like losing a member of the family, because it really meant that nothing would ever be the same again.

From January 28, 1986 onward America lost its imagination to conquer space and part of its national pride in the process. Shuttle launches and interest in manned space missions became declined rapidly in the late 1980’s and has quite frankly never recovered. Even today, a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is a commemoration of a different age when Americans dared to dream more than it is a look to the future. The irony is of course for much of my childhood the future and space were linked together in the American consciousness.

The 30th Anniversary of the Challenger explosion has been largely treated like a historical footnote and that is a sad thing. The STS-51 crew that perished that chilly January day less than two minutes after launch from Kennedy Space Center was a cross-section of America as we know it today, but ahead of the time in the 1980’s. A school teacher, Christa McAuliffe along with crew members that were African-American man, Jewish-American woman and Japanese-American man perished in the accident. It was at the time the most diverse flight crew that NASA had ever assembled, as for much of the 1960’s and 1970’s space exploration was the exclusive province of white males.

McAuliffe was on the second successive shuttle mission to carry a civilian – the previous mission whose constant delays pushed STS-51 to undesirable launch date when temperatures reached freezing in Brevard County carried local Congressman Bill Nelson into space.

In the world of cable news and overemphasis on every bit of political or celebrity gossip commemorations were minimal today. That’s too bad. When Americans dare to dream we can achieve anything. The space program in its best years taught us that, and today with a crisis in national confidence apparent after the Iraq War and polarization of the Bush and Obama Presidencies, things like the Challenger disaster and what those women and men who passed that day represent can unite all Floridians and Americans.

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