It's weird to me how time moves on. Challenger has always been with me, one of those deep scars that's faded so that you can't see it, but that still flare up sharp and fresh if something jars them wrong. I didn't even realize it was that particular day until I saw something show up on my Facebook feed.
A single-engine plane flown by a man who'd been (I think) an Army reservist crashed at airfield east of Dayton on Wednesday, and yesterday or Wednesday a young woman died when her car crashed with a school bus north of here. So the Dayton Barely News and their sister TV station have had literally almost nothing to say the last few days except for "Dohhh, airplanes just keep falling out of the sky here! So dangerous!/AN VETERAN HERO!!!2!" depending on the angle they want to exploit, "yeah, we guess it was too bad this lady died but there were kids on the bus oh noes! Why didn't they have seatbelts?", or "Okay, so it's actually been pretty nice here through all this terrible weather six hundred miles east of us, but oh my god, you guys, it snowed near Cincinnati! And this town two or three hours southeast of here totally got nailed with a foot of snow! It counts! We're included in the Snowmageddon of '16! " The only mention of the Challenger anniversary was a short closing story on the national news.
I was six when she died.
I remember barely any of it. Or at least barely any of the details. But I think it's sort of my memory equivalent to "where were you when Kennedy was shot?"
We lived in Louisville at the time. I was at the age where one day as we were driving home from McDonald's, Dad started grousing to Mom about something President Ronald had done, I piped up from the back, "Ronald McDonald?!", he agreed deadpan that yes, Ronald McDonald, and I firmly believed for at least a year afterward that Ronald McDonald was the President of the United States.
We lived in the Highlands, which... really only makes sense to people from Louisville. If I said "yeah, we were on Trevilian, about a block down from Lakeside Pool, maybe half a mile off Bardstown," someone from Louisville would understand immediately where and what I meant. But I guess the broad strokes are that it's a neighborhood of little cottage-type houses from the 1920s and 1930s; not a super-wealthy neighborhood, even the bigger houses, but well kept up and community-oriented. And very middle-class white.
I went to Dann C. Byck Elementary, in the northwest corner of the city/on the west side of downtown (Louisville geography is weird; it spreads south and southeast from a bend in the Ohio River and even today hasn't spilled that far over into Indiana, so downtown is about as far north as you can go and still be in Louisville). Even being six years old, I remember being aware that it was in kind of a sketchy part of town. I was a little surprised that it's even still there when I went to look up where in the city it even is, because I don't know how much worse it could get. That was the first neighborhood where I saw houses with bars on the doors.
At the time, my mom was working on her master's degree in elementary education. She got placed with the other first grade teacher at Byck for her student teaching. I remember that school being just amazingly fun anyway. I went to a Quaker preschool, where they were basically like "Hey, we're Quaker! You do you, it's all good!" But for kindergarten I went to a public school with a teacher who really, really didn't like me being not-girl, and not compliant and sweet, and not wanting to play house and dolls when I could play Boss the Boys Around While We Pretend to Be the Thundercats/Get In Big Fights About How the Thundercats Are Meant to Be Played. All I remember about kindergarten is getting in trouble for insisting that I did not want to be a mommy and for not doing what I was told to do. Mom says all she really remembered how much the teacher didn't like me, how all the conferences were her going on and on about how stupid I was and I couldn't read (I wouldn't read; I was reading at four or five, but I didn't like her, so I wouldn't read for her), and I was such a bad kid.
We spent a lot more time with the two first grade teachers at Byck than we might have normally because of Mom's student teaching. But it's an arts magnet school now, and I think it had a lot of that free-spirited "learning is awesome! School is fun! We're all friends!" atmosphere even back then. That was also the first school I went to where I met kids of other races and cultures. I'm willing to guess that my first six-year-old crush was on a girl named Blair in my first grade class who was probably mixed or Hispanic, because we were little kid bestie-friendies, but I really, really liked her beyond that. I thought she was the coolest, prettiest girl I'd ever seen; I'd never met anyone before who had that kind of perfect straight, dark, long hair before. My teacher was Mrs. Barham, this cheerful, motherly woman. I read for her. We adored each other, so I read so much to her that she invited our family to come to her house for dinner so that she could introduce her family to this awesome little reading monster she kept going on about. I read probably a quarter of Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" to them, and they were very politely appreciative.
You know how people like to make hay about girls who are interested in the sciences and then steered away from them by schools that go "oh, ho ho, no! Girls don't science!" Yeah. Hi. My family likes to tell the story about how I would tell people about how I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was five years old and lectured Mom's thesis advisers about dinosaurs, but I loved space. I wanted to go to Space Camp so badly after I saw it on an episode of Reading Rainbow. Hell, I wanted to go to space. I was going to be a fricking marine-paleo-astronaut-biologist.
This one day, Mrs. Ferren's class came into our room (or we went into hers; I can picture the room, but I don't remember whose it was) to watch the Space Shuttle launch together. I don't even know where I'd have seen it much except on the TV news or in class, but I loved the Space Shuttle. I'm not sure I even knew there was more than one of them, but I loved it. We'd been talking about it for weeks, and I was really excited because there was a teacher on board who was going to do a lesson. I had the confused idea that right on that very day, she would talk directly to our class through the TV and we'd talk back to her. But it was space! And they were all different, men and women and white and black and Asian, like us! And they'd do experiments! In space! I only remember the rest of the crew's names when I read them and recognize them, but reading about that mission only makes it sound more and more like it would have been amazing. Ronald McNair's plans to make music in space. First Jewish woman and Asian-American in space.
I don't remember the explosion at all. Looking at pictures of it scratches something still tender, so I guess my mind has put it up on the "NOPE, you don't need to be messing with that" high shelf of my brain. All I remember is watching the Shuttle on TV and... then we weren't watching the Shuttle on TV, and everyone was upset and crying and I didn't understand what was going on or why. I very vaguely remember the newscaster covering the launch talking in a tone that newscasters didn't normally use. And sitting in the middle of all these crying kids asking Mom why, why did that happen? I might have known that the poor crew was gone, I'm not sure. But even thirty years later it's still too raw a nerve to dwell on and interrogate about the details of what I saw.
But when poor Columbia went up, part of the reason I was so wrecked was that it raked so at old scabs.
In Milwaukee last month, I spent a while killing time watching TV in the hotel of an evening, just putting off walking out in the cold without a coat to see if there was anything near enough for dinner still open. Somehow I ended up on a program about near-miss accidents that almost ended in disaster for various space programs back in the day. The first segment, about a USSR-ian rocket in the '60s or '70s that caught fire on the launch pad and started to fall over was interesting, even in the scope that it's horrifying that enough of these things happened for there to be a regular series about them.
But the second segment was about an American space shuttle that... broke somehow. I don't even remember what was wrong with it. I went to the bathroom or walked down to see if the Starbucks in the lobby was open or something like that at a commercial break and missed part. So I came back, and there were astronauts on camera talking about this bad thing that happened with the shuttle. I don't think I even caught which shuttle it was. But I kept watching it and it made me really anxious, because I thought I recognized the names of the crew interviewed or mentioned on the show. Just looking up the Challenger's crew and details on Wikipedia leaves me feeling like I'm about to cry, so I decided to leave well enough alone. But the memory of Challenger and her poor crew were gliding about in the depths of my mind just hearing "Shuttle accident," so I kept watching with the growing urge to turn it off because I knew what this was and did not need to hear about it out of the blue.
But I just sat there watching and going "Ohhh, nope nope nope nope nope need to turn this off!" until I realized that they could not possibly be talking about Challenger or Columbia if they were interviewing crew members who had been on this mission. And of course when I went to Wikipedia to figure out what the hell I'd been thinking of, the Challenger crews' names were nothing like the ones this episode had been throwing around. I have no idea what happened there.
I'd been planning to see "Star Wars" again yesterday, since being cheap and all the show times falling when I'm already doing something else are the main reasons I haven't seen it like four times now. But I just... ehhhh, wasn't quite in the mood for watching space stuff blow up yesterday, so I did my errands near the mall and went home.
I saw Space Shuttle Enterprise at the Smithsonian Air and Space's storage barn out in northern Virginia a few years ago (if not her, then Discovery; Wikipedia and Air and Space's website have conflicting information about which shuttle would have been there in 2009 or '10). My first gut reaction was I want to pet it! because the Space Shuttle program was such a huge part of my childhood. I mean, yeah, I grew up on Star Wars, but that is the image fixed in my mind of what a real-life spaceship looks like. It really makes me sad that they cancelled the Space Shuttle program. It had its problems of course, or else they wouldn't have shut it down. And nostalgia isn't the soundest reason to continue a government program, but... I miss them.
Dragon and Cygnus are cool, but they lack the romance and derring-do of actual manned space flight. I mean, yeah, there's the Orion missions and the Dream Chaser and Dragon V2 on the horizon. And 2011 to 2019-ish isn't that long when you're talking about taking something as massive and complicated as the space program and walking it back to see where you can fix and improve things. But it seems so much longer; I didn't realize until I looked it up that the Space Shuttle program only ended in 2011. And meanwhile, there are some stunning images and amazing discoveries from the explorers and orbiters if you're nerd enough to go looking for them, but there's nothing in the public eye as big and famous and pretty as the shuttles--or the Gemini and Saturn rockets before them--to make kids go fuck yeah, space! And that's something we really need.
And now it's no longer yesterday that was the anniversary of the Challenger disaster and I just completely lost it again when an article had an accompanying photo of a piece of the wreckage where her name had been written. Somehow looking at the list of articles remembering the Challenger landed me on a page of Google with a big chunk of articles about how long the crew survived after the initial disaster, and even after thirty years, I just... I can't. I just can't. I cannot give that more than a momentary thought, because... those poor people. Their poor families, to have to not just live with this tragedy, but have people releasing articles and reports about how horribly their loved ones may have died. I have to leave this alone now, even if it's a little late to shut the "don't think about that" barn door.
Commander Scobee, Captain Smith, Lt. Colonel Onizuka, Ms. Resnik, Dr. McNair, Captain Jarvis, Ms. McAuliffe, rest well. You're remembered.