Today is January 28, 2014. It is a Tuesday. It is the 28th anniversary of the loss of space shuttle Challenger and its crew.
That was also a Tuesday.
The events of that day are still entrenched firmly in my mind. The image of that distant disaster, unfolding real time before my very eyes, will forever be etched into my memory.
As I write this, at 12:30pm, I can almost tell you for certain what I was doing. Aside from crying, which I did a lot that day, I was watching CBS News. There reached a point where Dan Rather's voice simply ceased to exist. The video around this time now showed an Air Force C-130, distant, hazy, heading towards the area where the debris had fallen a short time before. Aside from WJCT, Jacksonville's local PBS station, all the networks were now covering the disaster.
A short time later, I simply turned the television off, and laid across the bed. My eyes stung from the amount of tears that I had cried.
That was when another feeling started to grip me.
When I was very young, I was blithely ignorant of other's perceptions or feelings about space exploration. By the time I entered fifth grade, I started to get a sense that it wasn't as popular as I thought. Much of this was simply childish behavior. I didn't fit in, and the other children, typically, seized upon the one aspect of my personality they knew would hurt me, and that was my love of space. So, I changed hobbies for a while, going to model railroading.
I was still teased.
And I still loved space.
When I entered junior high, the teasing got worse, but I dug my heels in, for a time, before finally acquiescing somewhat. It was other events that finally caused me to make an attempt to "fit in". Still, I loved space.
Once I figured out it was just people being immature, I decided to embrace my love affair with space exploration again, openly. I figured that, as adults, many of these people, my age and otherwise, surely must see how important space exploration was. Instead, I encountered pretty much the same ambivalence, now backed by solid reasoning and posturing.
With the loss of Challenger, I feared that those who thought space a waste of money would feel themselves vindicated, and they would simply shut it all down. And no amount of reasoning would shift their minds.
As the day progressed, I decided it was urgent that my wife and I go out and get what space related material we could, not just because I knew that the market minded would do the same, but that it might get relegated to oblivion. We drove to the nearby Albertson's, and took a look on the shelves in the toy section. I already knew what they had, but there was now a new found sense of urgency. Already, they were being picked over, and some of those items I sought had vanished; a Revell 1/144 Shuttle orbiter kit, some Young Astronaut related toys. What remained was an ERTL diecast shuttle orbiter and a much smaller complete shuttle stack, as well as a Monogram Young Astronaut Snap-Tite space shuttle. We bought all three.
And with that, there were no shuttle items left on the shelves.
I fell in love with the larger ERTL diecast shuttle. It was heavy, 1/200 scale, had retractable landing gear, working payload doors, and a strange looking payload of sorts. The smaller shuttle was around 1/480-500, had something like a launch pad for its stand, and could separate into its main components. I'd had the Monogram Snap-Tite shuttle before. It was never opened. The two diecast models ended up sitting in a place of honor on my bookshelf.
As the weeks dragged on, and the investigation into the loss of the Challenger progressed, we would grab every newspaper we could, every magazine, if it had a story about the investigation. In time, I had a huge scrapbook of clippings. We didn't have a VCR (we were rather poor), so if there was anything on the evening news, I would jot it down.
In time, it was apparent that the nation was not turning its back on the program. President Reagan wanted to press on, though it was obvious that the shuttle program was going to be greatly scaled back. By the time that the shuttle program returned to flight, two years, eight months and one day later, it looked like we would continue our push into the heavens. By this time, I had a couple of other model space shuttles, including an Estes flying kit. I gave the Monogram Young Astronaut kit to a co-worker's son, it having never been opened (in the interim, I had built two more Monogram kits).
I kept the scrap book until the 16th anniversary. At that time, I chose to donate it to the South Florida Science Museum, where I worked. That felt more important than for me to hold on to it.
That was on January 28th, 2002.
I still have the two ERTL models. The larger orbiter has chipped paint, and its payload has long since vanished. The little shuttle stack's external tank has yellowed on one side, and the plastic has become rather brittle, the pins that hold the rocket boosters splaying, with one having broken, as well as the forward pin for the orbiter. I still value both, problems and all. Like the binoculars I took with me that cold morning so long ago, they remind me of the sacrifice that was made. This is still a very new arena of exploration, and one that is fraught with risks.
Sadly, there would be more loss. When I gave away that scrapbook, who would have suspected that a year and three days later, we'd mourn once again.