Two memories have cycled through my mind when I watched the coverage of the space shuttle explosion: the first “test drive” of the space shuttle design on top of that 747 in the 70s and white branching of Challenger’s breakup in the last NASA “disaster.”I remember camping out all day to watch the coverage of this new reusable space vehicle christened Enterprise (named after the “boldly-go” ship of Star Trek). I think even Leonard Nimoy was on a hand for the launch. Explanations were given on why this was such a difficult test and what could go wrong (much like the commentary when Evil Knievel’s attempt to jump across the Grand Canyon except a different result). The Enterprise flight was flawless for us the viewer and I with others were giddy–that same satisfied smile you have when that Estes model rocket actually went up, the parachute worked and you even used a yard stick, a protractor and a weighted string with a dash of higher math to figured out how high the thing went with the biggest “D” engine you could buy.
I loved the idea of space travel and really thought that things like I saw in Star Wars and Star Trek were not too far off. I dreamed of space travel when I revisited my Viking Mars landing picture issue of Scientific American. I flew through the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy with my own model of the Enterprise.
Another memory was the news we received during a cafeteria lunch on a snowy day in Grand Rapids, MI. Someone asked me told me first and wondered if I’d make the announcement and lead in prayer. I opted another person and Eric became the journalist and pastor. The hall gasped and prayed and I still regret not having the guts for being the messenger. We crowded around the one television upstairs in the lounge and watched in silence. I remembered that there was a teacher on board along with those who were trained to fly in the shuttle.
My wife asked me if our pastor had mentioned the Columbia explosion yesterday in his sermon. I paused and it dawned on me that there was no reference to the tragedy in either service. In a place where the result of a basketball game would be joked about, where a reference to Survivor may be used, where a guy who ran from God and ended up in Big Fish, I felt like we had missed the chance to acknowledge and pray for some pretty courageous folk.
But I can’t blame the church or the media or society or even our parents on this one. This is who we are. As I talk with my students today, I can’t really change their values–the values that prompts my students to evaluate everything as consumers: their teachers, schools, bodies, music, and cars.
In my mind I know I can’t change that thinking, but in my heart I take a cue from a dear colleague who is ready to die from a 10-month battle with cancer. He still thinks that we can “save the world” by the little actions of humanity and love. And that’s the teacher’s heart that stirred us in 1986 and in 9/11/2001 and now on 2/2/2003.