Challenger Disaster Restrospective

Official STS-51L Crew Portrait (NASA)

Official STS-51L Crew Portrait (NASA)

I was listening to NPR today, this anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, that was etched in our minds because the teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was on board. The host of the afternoon show asked for people to call in recounting where they were and what way they were doing on that day, January 28th, 1986, and how that disaster affected them in regard to teaching or space travel.

This particular event is etched more deeply into my mind that most events. I was living in New Hampshire at the time. Christa McAuliffe was a teacher at a school in Concord New Hampshire, not even 30 minutes away. It was a big deal four people living in New Hampshire at the time. School children were watching the lift off in most schools throughout the State. I will never forget the horrified looks of those children, their teachers, the McAuliffe family and the country as they watched the shuttle explode in real time in the sky.

I was not glued to a television because I had been called in to jury duty. I was seated in the jury box with the other jurors as the attorneys played out another disaster of a different kind before us. The allegations were sexual abuse by a man of a young girl sleeping over in his house. I forget the reason why.

I do not remember much about the trial, but I remember like it was yesterday the moment when the bailiff came in and whispered in the judge’s ear. Not knowing any different, this seemed unusual. We were in the middle of pretty serious business, but the proceedings were abruptly stopped, and we were unceremoniously ushered silently into the jury room without explanation where we sat wondering what was gong on.

It seemed like quite some time before the judge entered the jury room. He told us that the trial was going to be continued to the next day, that we were excused and the courthouse was being closed down for the remainder of the day. Then he explained what had happened. It seems that the whole State was reeling.

The Challenger disaster hit very close to home. The invitation for a teacher, an every day person who occupied a poignant position in the lives of children, like teachers around the country, to ride along as part of the space adventure seemed to be the celebration of a new day in the history of mankind. The frontiers of space and new worlds were opening up. And they shut down cold in an instant.

I graduated from college in 1982, thinking that I might go into education. Four years later, though I had not gone into education, I would be coming to a point of decision within the next two years. I was 26, newly married and our first born son was a baby. I was thinking about the future – a future that could end in an instant.

Somewhat fortuitously, my decision whether to be an educator took a detour. I had considered obtaining a Master of Arts degree in education, which my college advisor assured me would take only one year in grad school. Unfortunately, the schools that I wanted to attend in New Hampshire at the time did not have a Master of Arts in Teaching degrees. It was going to take me two and a half years, in fact, to obtain a teaching certificate, as my English literature courses did not include the proper English education and other educational courses. My only other thought for full time career was law.

It may be that I was influenced by the jury trial, and perhaps I was. The other option that was always in the back of my mind, however, was law. My father was a lawyer. I took the LSAT at Dartmouth College, six years after my last undergraduate class, and scored highly on the test. My decision was set.

I sit at a computer at my desk in my own law office a thousand miles from Concord, NH and thirty years to the day after the Challenger disaster. Space exploration never did fully recover after that horrific day. We no longer talk about space travel like we did. I have faced many challenges in my life, not the least of which was the decision to go back to school, to go to law school.

I can honestly say that, had I known how difficult law school would be at the time I made that decision, I would have gone the other direction. We traveled a thousand miles away, with two children at the time, and a third child was born twelve hours after my last test in my first year of law school. My wife was sick all nine months of the pregnancy while she watched children in our home, made crafts and cakes and pies to sell, and I doggedly pursued a law degree like a pioneer knowing that I could not fail with my family in tow until I arrived at the destination.

I succeeded in the adventure, graduating 2nd in my class after three hard years. Christa McAuliffe failed in an instant. It was not her fault. Perhaps, it was not anyone’s fault. It just happened. There are no guaranties in life, I always say. She could have shrunk back from the opportunity of a lifetime to be the first teacher in space, but she did not hesitate. She did not fail for lack of trying.

I worked hard in those three years of law school, and I succeeded; but there were no guaranties for me either. Any number of things out of my control along the way could have hijacked me from my course. It was a great sense of accomplishment for me, and one which came at great sacrifice, but the outcome could have been different – regardless of my trying.  In the end, in fact, we all die.

This line of musing may seem a bit existential and fatalistic to some, but it is the reality.  A reality we do not like to face. So, what of it?

Should we resign ourselves to our inevitable fate? Should we not try? If I will die in the end, am I no better off than Christa McAuliffe? Where her efforts in vain? If we are going to die in the end, should we seize whatever pleasure we can get out of life (even at a little girl’s expense)? Never!

This cannot be all there is, or we would not yearn for more.  Human beings are capable of the noblest of aspirations and the vilest vices. If we give in to the gravitational pull of the lower nature, those vices will suck the marrow from our soul. On the other hand, the effort of striving against those gravitational pulls and daring to soar against the wind, even if we fail, reveals the noblest potential of human character.

We are made in the image of God, and the attempt to live to the potential He created in us is, itself, the prize. the journey is the destination. Making the most of the talents we are given for the betterment of human kind is to live the life God has made for us, no matter the end. And the end, is just a new beginning.

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