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January 28, 2011


I was, like most of my generation, raised on the power of science and engineering to achieve amazing things, and grew up with an idea of America that was largely based on my sense that once we put our minds (and wallets) to something, nothing could keep us from getting it done. As I got older, and read about the men and women of the space race, the threat posed by the Soviets, and America's response, I felt a kind of pride in the way that sound engineering and guts defined us as a nation, and kept that feeling for much of my life.

Even in the disillusioned days after 9/11, when the idiots that had always been there came out of the woodwork with their ridiculous "power of pride" bumper stickers and flag decals, I could reassure myself that despite the jingoism and feeble understanding of world politics (and America's role in them, good and shameful) we were still a country who held a special place, whose dedication to breaking through the chains of history was sacrosanct.

I may not hold with the mass of neoconservatives in the matter of the necessity of religious belief for moral soundness, and think government has done a number of great things (though alongside a number of really stupid ones), but undeniably one of the great ones is the act of putting men, American men, on the moon and in space and sending craft to the other planets and moons. I had a telescope when I was a kid, and I remember looking at the tiny crescent of Venus, the craters of the moon, distant Jupiter with its moons and Saturn with its rings. Knowing that we had sent things to those places and that they sent data and images back for science was somehow enough to keep out the creeping feeling of how small that meant we were, I was.

But on a cold day in January 1986, twenty five years ago today, I was sitting in a hallway waiting for Mrs. Thomas to unlock the classrom where we were going to watch the shuttle launch after lunch, and my friend Josh, who was an affable if somewhat goofy kid, came up to me and asked me what was up, and just to screw with his head a bit I said "didn't you hear? The shuttle blew up!" Of course, I didn't know about it yet. It hadn't happened yet. He was terribly upset and I felt bad about things, but then along came Mrs. Thomas and we went into class as usual.

And I soon watched in horror as the first real disaster of my life unfolded, my faith in science and technology started to waver and crack, and I learned that while equations are still part of a perfect world, O-rings and frost and bureaucracy and other big little things can tear a hole in the sky and fill it with smoke and dead astronauts.

At this point, all I can say is that there's a bit of that pride still there, knowing that even after Challenger was lost, and then Columbia, there are still those who are willing to throw themselves into the sky strapped to giant pillars of fire, so that we might not all be bound to scratch out our meager lives on this swirling oblate spheroid we call home.