KIMBALL – On Sunday it will have been 32 years since that awful day.
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 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, great things were brewing.
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. In only a few hours, 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. I had a pair of friends flying in Challenger, and I wanted to witness their triumph.
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 and test pilot training.
Judith Resnik, or JR as I knew her, 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
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 by 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. As a lifetime worshiper of America’s Space Program, meeting astronauts was always a treat for me, but I can tell you that meeting and visiting with JR was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life.
So, it was with a great deal of joy and happiness 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 my reaction to the loss of Challenger. The long unfolding of that devastating moment was perhaps more painful to me than any other single experience of my life. Perhaps it was the sudden death of heroes who were also friends. Perhaps it was the sudden realization of the nature of mortal life, the uncertainty and impermanence of human endeavor.
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 that took place on that day, 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. We humans rarely take the opportunity to tell each other really important things. That’s simply our nature. 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 richer 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.