Heroes of my youth. NASA photo.
It was a cold morning 23 years ago today. I was in the ninth grade, playing right field on the lower softball field of Crescenta Valley High School. It was my PE "final exam" that day.
The batter, I think he was actually a righty and I was playing him to pull, hit an unexpected opposite-field flare down the right-field line. I took off running and I actually remember seeing the seams on the ball rotate as I closed in. After several seconds of running, I barely was able to stretch my glove hand out and squeeze the ball into the mitt. A run-saving catch, probably the best I made at any level of softball/baseball! I was inordinately proud of myself. It was about 8:45 a.m.
Three-thousand miles away, at that very minute, seven brave men and women gave their lives in the name of science above the Florida coast. The space shuttle Challenger broke apart that day (while it looks as if it exploded, the propellant only ignited after the external tank disintegrated) -- Jan. 28, 1986, one of the seminal moments of my life.
I had long been a huge fan of the space program, probably in an unusual way for someone born after the first moon landing. I fantasized about going into space, studied hard at astronomy and was still thinking I had a decent chance at one day becoming an astronaut (in fact, one of my great regrets in life was that I didn't become an astronaut or astrophysicist -- not good enough at maths past algebra). The space shuttle program, I believed, was one of man's greatest accomplishments and I had been following preparations for this launch fairly closely.
After the PE "final" ended, still oblivious to events at Cape Canaveral, I dressed and walked up to the main part of campus to get a snack. The PA system crackled and a voice requested my attention. "No!" I shouted, not wanting to hear about the latest fundraiser or dance announcement (they over-used the PA back then). I couldn't hear the garbled voice as I trudged along, but I could see the reactions of some classmates outside the student store. They looked up toward the speaker with concern, combined with a bit of shock. I asked what happened -- "The space shuttle blew up!" one replied. I didn't believe him.
At snack, I spoke to a couple people who could confirm the story. I then had to take a typing final -- and we all know how I hate typing class on the best of days. I couldn't concentrate, wondering what had happened to the shuttle. Needless to say, I had to retake the typing class a few semesters later (and actually enjoyed it then).
Once school let out (it was a half-day due to the final exam schedule), I went over to my cousin Marco's house (he was the closest to school of all my friends at the time -- yes Rob, I know you lived closer but we didn't hang out then) and watched the news most of the afternoon. I was upset, in shock and disheartened. I really think I lost a lot of my innocence that day, lost the feeling that things usually turned out good in the end, etc.
But I also learned that the advancement of the species comes with risks, and I now admire those that take them even more. I also gained some solace, silly as it might be, in that I had a great catch that day to dedicate to the fallen astronauts. It made me feel a bit better.
(What's scary about this anniversary for me is that on a visit back to Southern California a little bit after I moved to the Bay Area, I dropped in on my old journalism professor at Glendale College. He told me that the writing journal project that semester was to reflect back on Challenger 10 years later. "Ten years? My God, has it been that long?" I thought. What's even more scary is that it's now 13 years after THAT anniversary and it feels even less time has advanced. Dang, I'm getting old.)