Recently we sadly observed the 30th year since the Challenger disaster caused the deaths of all seven astronauts aboard their space shuttle. I have no difficulty, even today, recognizing in photographs the iconic plume of smoke that tragically replaced the shuttle orbiter just 73 seconds after take-off.
The media offered retrospectives to remind us of that day in 1986, and some in my Facebook circle recalled where they received the news of the heartbreaking event. Personally, I was teaching in the same GHS classroom where I had learned of John Kennedy’s assassination 23 years earlier and would first hear of the 9/11 attacks fifteen years into the future.
My thoughts turned to the space program, which seems to have run a course parallel to the lifetimes of us older Boomers. My childhood view of the blue yonder included airplanes that crisscrossed the skies and fascinating designs created by their vapor trails. I never dreamed back then I would spend so many hours and miles traveling up there.
And for my kid self, outer space was the place of flying saucers and little green men. Soon, however, it was 1957. Sputnik was orbiting the earth – and causing concern: anything Russian in those days caused concern. Our government created NASA a year later, and the Space Race was on.
Our teacher, Mrs. Paananen, guided my fifth-grade class that same year through an extensive science unit about the solar system. I chose Saturn for my multi-page report, which I copied over neatly with my new cartridge pen. For the final project I created a space suit for my modern Barbie-like doll, the one I had acquired by saving laundry detergent box tops. Mrs. Paananen was very impressed with the fashionable cape I made to cover the doll’s oxygen tank. For Christmas I received my own copy of Rockets into Space, a book I had borrowed from the library several times during our space studies.
My sister and I share the recollection that in May of 1961 all Concord students, grades 1-8, excitedly crowded into the big study hall upstairs to watch, on the only television set in the building, Alan Shepard become the first American to travel into space. Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut, had won the first leg of the Space Race with his single orbit of Earth a month earlier. However, nothing could dampen our wonder at witnessing Shepard’s 15-minute flight, complete with counted-down launch. And the next February, during my eighth-grade year, we watched the school TV again as Ohioan John Glenn completed three Earth orbits.
The subsequent Gemini program successfully allowed astronaut Ed White to follow another cosmonaut by “walking in space.” However, the biggest goal in Washington – and Moscow – was putting a man on the moon, the U.S. goal set by President Kennedy as he spoke to a joint session of Congress shortly after Shepard’s successful trip – a goal to be reached before the end of the decade.
NASA established the Apollo program to accomplish that very goal. We can all recall several of the numbered Apollo missions: the tragedy of three deaths in Apollo 1 and the drama of Apollo 13 certainly come to mind.
And we all remember another astronaut from Ohio, Neil Armstrong, stepping onto the surface of the moon. There were, however, five other American moon landings; I am probably not alone in recalling those events much less clearly, as they had become somehow routine.
The Challenger was part of the space shuttle program; and again there were many missions, most happening with less fanfare that earlier space events. However, the Teacher-in-Space project, whose ideal embodiment was Christa McAuliffe, seemed to revitalize at least momentary interest in space exploration. Many eager school children, ready for the lessons Mrs. McAuliffe would teach from space, gathered in front of televisions that January morning. In the tragic twist that stunned viewers young and old, the lesson plan that day became one of the dangers pioneers on any frontier must face. President Reagan consoled us all by quoting from John Gillespie Magee’s poem: “… they slipped the surly bonds of earth … to touch the face of God.”
The space program no longer seems to garner the attention it once did. Maybe there are too many movies filled with extravagant special effects, causing the real thing to pale in comparison. How unfortunate, when we consider the remarkable work accomplished in the International Space Station. Amazing, too, is the upcoming 26th anniversary of the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Who among us has not been wowed by the many photographs that picture the far reaches of our solar system? But there is also truth in President Reagan’s observation, “We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us.”
One phenomenal aspect of space exploration is the relatively short time in which so much has been achieved. My grandparents were born before that very first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903; and yet, before their deaths, Neil Armstrong had taken the “… one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
I choose to apply the lessons learned from the space program, as well as from so many other cutting edge challenges, by contemplating JFK’s words in 1962: “We choose to … do things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Now that is a soaring goal.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.