January 28, 2006

"I have slipped the surly bonds of earth"

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of STS-51-L and the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger.

On that day, I returned home from school for lunch and turned on the television, only to catch the news reports and constantly repeated video of the explosion on every channel. In my memory this was only the second time I had seen this kind of wall-to-wall news coverage - the first was the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I was 10 at the time, and it had hardly the emotional impact as the Challenger disaster did on a more mature, 15-year-old spaceflight buff for whom the thrill of the first Columbia mission hadn't worn off.

This, for me, was my generation's "Kennedy" moment - at least until 9/11 made it look insignificant.

But, two and a half years later, NASA got back on its feet again; Discovery launched flawlessly on mission STS-26 on September 29, 1988. And for the next few years, new and interesting things were in store for us space buffs: the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station being the most notable. I worked for a time as a technical editor for a local company that supplied hardware to NASA for the ISS, so I have worked briefly with astronauts and had lunch with an entire shuttle crew.

NASA fell down, but got up again. It's too bad that in the aftermath of the Columbia's destruction in 2002, they seem a little wobbly on their feet.

Reagan's speech on the eve of the disaster is one of the most significant of his presidency.