28 January 2011

Bottle Rocket

In the winter of 1986 I was twelve years old and I had it all figured out.  I was going to grow up to be Luke Skywalker.  Well, not really.  I knew Luke was fiction.  But I was going to be a star pilot.  I was going to go to the
Air Force Academy and be a top jet fighter pilot.  I was certain that by the mid-nineties the US would have star fighters or at least single maned space craft.  They would pick the best jet pilots to be the first star fighter pilots and I was going to be the best star pilot in the galaxy. My dream was totally logical.  Totally realistic.

By 1981 my schoolmates and I had watched the Space Shuttle Columbia launch and land on a TV in the basement of St. Paul Elementary School.  In my short life I'd seen us go from space capsules that crashed in the ocean to shuttles that landed like jet planes.  Certainly we would have star fighters by the time I was an adult.  

In 1982 my family went to the World's Fair in Knoxville, TN.  There was a big NASA exhibit.  All the kids were buying toy Space Shuttles.  (Mine is in the basement somewhere.)  They had this big robot arm like on the Space Shuttles.  Star Wars was becoming real.  Certainly by the mid-nineties I would have my own star fighter and R2 unit to keep me company.  The future was bright and it was bound to show up any minute.

By 1986 there had been over 20 Space Shuttle missions and the luster had worn off but they still showed the launches in school on something they called NASA-TV.  I don't think that I saw the January 28th Challenger launch in school though.  I think we were out on a snow day.  But I remember that I saw it as it happened.

It was a Tuesday.  I had seen the launch that morning.  The cameras were so far away.  It was so far in the sky.  It moved so fast.  Upwards. Upwards.  And then it stopped.  There were several white plumes of smoke spiraling back toward Earth.  It was so far away.  It seemed so small.  Like a bottle rocket.  

That winter of 85/86 was pretty bad.  Or pretty good if you were a kid.  Lots of snow days.  Lots of sledding.  I remember my parents taking me over to Bristol, TN that afternoon.  They took me to a sporting goods store to look for snow boots.  We called them moon boots back then.  The car the radio went over the details of the disaster.  In the store there was a television.  Over and over.  Those little spirals of white smoke.  

I remember sitting in the back seat of my dad's Chevy Blazer playing with my GI Joe Cobra F.A.N.G helicopter toy.  On the GI Joe cartoons, no matter how bad things got, the good buys and the bad guys both always manged to eject from their choppers and jets just before they blew up.  Astronauts were the best.  The smartest.  The best people in the world.  They would have been able to figure out some escape.  They would have been able to eject.  Any minute now they were going to find them.  Floating safely in the ocean.  Any minute now.  I knew they were alive.

At the time, the people on TV and radio did not seem to even consider the possibility that they were alive.  But I believed.  It turns out I was not totally wrong.  Most experts believe that the explosion would not have been enough to destroy the crew compartment and there is evidence that for a few seconds, or maybe just a moment, they were trying.  Flipping switches.  Pushing buttons.  Pulling levers.  They were fighting.  Because that's what the best do.  But there was no ejection button.  No bright red parachute like on GI Joe.  They hit the ocean at over 200 mph.

Reagan addressed the nation that night.  I don't remember any of what he said but I do remember the Tonight Show.  I was probably able to stay up late that night because of another snow day.  Johnny was off that night.  Joan Rivers was the host.  Johnny was off most nights for the last decade or so of his run.  It was really Joan Rivers' show during most of the 80s.  I don't remember exactly what she said but I remember she called off the monologue and that she acknowledged the tragedy.  She said something to the effect that it was not a time for jokes and she expressed her sympathy to the families of those lost and to the nation.  She said something about how life would go on and that after the commercials the show would have it's guests and they would put on a normal show.  But in that moment when the monologue was supposed to happen, Joan Rivers decided to be a real honest human being, do the right thing and put the jokes on hold.  I'll always respect her for that.

I don't remember watching the rest of the show.  By that time it had sunk in.  The astronauts were gone.  We were not going to have star fighters and a kid with eyes as bad as mine was never going to be an Air Force fighter jock.   I went to bed.

It's hard to put your finger on things like this but I would guess 1986 was the year my childhood was over.  I've clung to it desperately.  I still cling to it.  I relive it through my own kids.  But really, it was over in 1986.  I think it might have been over for my whole generation in 1986 and looking at it now, I think it might have been over for the whole country.  We don't seem to be reaching for the stars anymore.  Literally or metaphorically.  Our childlike imaginations are gone.  We don't cure diseases.  We don't invent new things.  We don't move forward.  We just make new products.  New gimmicks.  New toys.  We don't make things better we just make them more expensive.  A new TV is still a TV.  A new phone is still a phone.  And frankly, you could actually hear the person you were talking to on the old phones.  What we have now are basically hand held teletype machines.  Yeah, your cell pad pod phone can play videos and update your facebook status but will it get you to the moon?  

2011 will be the last year  of the Space Shuttle program.  The remaining shuttles will be museum pieces.  In the near future, US astronauts will depend on Russian rockets to reach the International Space Station. Not exactly the victory lap we were looking for in the space race.

When I think of the Challenger it is not with sadness.  I am inspired by it.  That seven people would strap themselves to a rocket and throw themselves towards the heavens.  That's something.  But it also makes me very angry.  I'm angry with myself.  I'm angry with our country.  I'm angry with the human race.  I'm angry at our lack of imagination.  I'm angry at our lack of adventure.  I'm angry at our complacency with gimmicks, toys, gadgets... products.  We should want more.   We should do more.  We should be more. 

If I were a better writer this would be the part of the story where I deliver my brilliant plan to fix things.  My brilliant words of wisdom to inspire others to recapture whatever it is our country has lost.  But I'm not that smart.  The only thing I've got going for me is a decent memory.  And I can cling to it.  I can cling to that... what was it?  Was it a feeling?  Was it an energy?  Was it... faith?  Hope?  There was something there before the winter of '86.  Like that feeling that someone is right behind your left shoulder.  Like that specter you see in the hallway just before you nod off.  It's still there.  If you focus.  On a good day you can actually touch it.  Like finding change under your couch cushions.  It was there all along.  

What you do with it is up to you.  Maybe you get bitter and complain about how things used to be so much better.  Or maybe you share it.  Maybe you remind people.  Maybe you tell your kids.  There once was a time we rode through the heavens in Space Shuttles and walked on the moon.  And we could do it again.  We could do it  better.  We could go further. We just have to want it.

Your best pal ever,
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