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Christa McAuliffe, weightless

Long before I stumbled into the jobs that I do now, long before I even knew what I wanted out of my life, I wanted to be an astronaut.

Nothing new there, of course — I’m going to hazard a guess that most makers at one point or another dreamed of exploration, pushing the frontiers of humankind out into the farthest reaches of what we could imagine.  I had been brought up with stories from my dad (a mathematician) about where he was when Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and Buzz Aldrin first landed Apollo 11 on the moon. He was fascinated by the mathematics involved, the engineering feats required to launch a rocket from Earth and hit a target 238,000 miles away with no room for error. I remember him gesturing wildly at the dinner table as he recounted his story, working in a gas station when the news came through, and cheers went up out on the street.

Twenty-five years ago today, my teachers gathered myself and my classmates in a room at Park Avenue Elementary School and wheeled in a decrepit TV with an old coat hanger as an antenna (back when you could get television for “free”). This was an extremely rare occurrence, so we were already excited beyond belief (“TV during the day!  HOORAY!!”). The teachers fussed and tuned, and finally, grainily, the image of the shuttle on the pad appeared. It was like a small current of electricity was running through the room. We squirmed in our seats, the teachers beamed, and we listened to the countdown. Before we knew it, the shuttle was off.

In retrospect, I now understand why my teachers in elementary school were so excited about the Challenger launch — Payload Specialist 2, Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire. She was to be “the first teacher in space,” but more than that, she seemed to resonate with all of us — no matter what your position in life. She showed it was possible to be a part of something truly epic, that the stars were within the reach of all of us.

But something was wrong. We didn’t understand exactly what, but I can remember the look on a teacher’s face as she uncrossed her arms and leaned closer to the TV from where she was standing, her jaw set. I remember somebody gasping or making an exclamation of some sort, and then a teacher rushing forward and quickly turned off the set. Silence fell. And then I started to cry without knowing exactly why. And I wasn’t alone.

These memories lay dormant in my mind, divorced (or so I thought) from the emotion of the child that I was. But I happened to be in a hotel room on Feb. 1, 2003, getting ready for a conference about … I can’t even remember at this point. The TV was on, and I was watching the news absently when it was reported that the Columbia broke apart over Texas, killing all seven astronauts. It all came rushing back, and I sat down on the bed and wept. Even now I get choked up writing this.

Like the Kennedy assassination of a generation before, the people of my age all seem to remember where they were when the Challenger exploded. I can still see it clearly in my mind’s eye, watching it on the screen, the curiosity of seeing the two white tails of debris, like a fork of lightning in a clear sky. I don’t really remember the rest of that day, but when I got home from school and my dad got home from work, he gave me a big hug.  Maybe he knew I needed it, or maybe he needed it himself.  I’ll never forget that day.

I’ll leave you with a quote I have up on my desk of one of the heroes of the space program, Gene Kranz, the NASA Flight Director. It was a speech he made to his team after the Apollo 1 caught fire. I come back to this time and again whenever I need a little inspiration, and a reminder that the way to greatness is paved with mistakes:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work. Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, ‘Dammit, stop!’ I don’t know what Thompson’s committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: ‘Tough’ and ‘Competent.’ Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect. When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write ‘Tough and Competent’ on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.

So to the men and women willing to put it all on the line to reach the stars, we salute you. You make our dreams manifest, and embody what is best in the complex interplay of the human spirit — the desire to create, to explore, and to inspire, even in the face of death.


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