Saturday, January 29, 2011

Stars in the Heavens

I was born in the winter of 1967. I was less than two years old when first MLK and then RFK fell victim to an assassin's bullets in 1968. I was only two and a half (or thereabouts) when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. All are events that occurred within my lifetime. None is an event of which I have any firsthand recollection. Everything that I know of them - at least as far as I can recall - is after the fact knowledge. It is something that I have learned from reading about them or from watching a program about them.

The first "Where Were You When" moment of my life occurred a quarter-century ago. In late January 1986 I was a freshman at the University of Colorado. While I do not recall what day of the week the 28th was, I remember being up and getting ready to go to class. Having attended class during the preceding semester (my first semester of my freshman year) in a manner that to have been considered "irregular" would have had to been considerably more consistent than it actually was. I paid for my sins with a GPA after that first semester that left Mom wondering what position, I played on the football team. It is funny now. I assure you that Joanie K was not laughing then.

Anyway, the spring semester had begun in mid-January and I was still embracing my new status as an active member of the Farrand Hall academic community on the 28th when one of my down-the-hall neighbors (Brian Cellar I think) came to my end of the hall to tell my roommates, neighbors and me that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded almost immediately after it had lifted off that morning. All of the astronauts aboard were killed. Among the crew of seven was a school teacher named Christa McAuliffe. Up until January 28, 1986, NASA was so confident (some might say cocky) in its ability to make the extraordinary things it does seem routine that it had opened up the shuttle doors to ordinary folks. Ms. McAuliffe was the first. In a moment frozen in time forever in the skies over the Atlantic Ocean that January morning NASA was reminded - as we all were - that sending astronauts into space is not something that is ever routine.

A quarter-century ago a lot of us - including Schneeds, Chip and me - did not have television sets in our dorm rooms. Next door to us, John and Bill had a small 13" color set that one of them had brought from home. All five of us, joined by Brian and Boo (the late, great Scott Bouchard - who lived on the other side of Bill and John) stood in their dorm room and watched the footage of the unthinkable. We watched it over and over for it was played over and over almost in the hope that if it was repeated enough the error that had doomed all of those aboard would be corrected and the Challenger would make it to 74 seconds and beyond, safe and sound. Except it did not. And twenty-five years later, hope that it ever shall has been long abandoned.

CU-Boulder has a long history of involvement in the space program, on every level. Scott Carpenter is a Buff. Jack Swigert (Apollo 13) was a Buff also. Aboard Challenger twenty-five years, the crew of seven included Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, a Buff (class of '69) and a shuttle veteran. Among the items that were recovered from the wreckage of Challenger were the CU flag and football he had intended to take into space with him.

A memorial to Ellison Onizuka was erected on the Boulder campus and the CU flag and football are part of it. While my memory is not now what it once was, courtesy of the twin demons of too much age now and too much alcohol then, it is my recollection that the 1986 home opener for the football team included a pre-game tribute to Colonel Onizuka that included a fly-over by jets in the "missing man" formation.

A quarter-century is both a long time and an eye blink. While reading the Daily Camera's coverage yesterday I could see myself standing in Bill/John's room on the 4th floor of Farrand Hall as if it was happening as I was contemplating it. Yet while reading the articles my eye was drawn to the mention of people such as Christa McAuliffe's husband. He is twenty-five years a widower. I would wager that for him and for the families of the seven who died that morning, January 28, 1986 feels as if it was a long, long time ago indeed.


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