January 28, 2006

The Risk of Challengers: Where Were You 20 Years Ago Today?

Twenty years ago today. Where were you. This type of question has often been asked about "defining" moments of generations. For some, it's the Kennedy assassination. For others, the shooting of John Lennon has served as a defining moment. In fact, I recently saw a play called "The Day They Shot John Lennon," in which a variety of characters representing a diverse swath of New Yorkers gather around the entrance to the Lennon's apartment building on the day he was killed and swap stories, remembrances, and philosophize what Lennon's death means to their lives and futures.

For many, September 11, 2001 will be a defining moment, and "Where were you when the planes hit?" or "Where were you when the towers fell?" will be a question they answer multiple times in their lives. I also have no doubt that for a number of people, the question that gets to the defining moment of their lives will be "Where were you when Katrina hit?"

But for me, one of my first defining moments was the Challenger disaster -- January 28th, 1986. I was a senior in college, walking in to class when I got the news. We were supposed to be watching a video that day, but as I walked in I noticed the professor toward the back of the class, and the launch of the Challenger was playing. I thought that it was strange that we would be watching it, and then the explosion occurred on screen. It was a repeat of what had happened earlier, and the day would be filled with images of the Challenger disaster.

The disaster was magnified in that the crew was such a representation of America. Of the crew of seven, two were women, one was black and one was Asian. While most of the crew were connected with the military before becoming astronauts, two were civilians including Christa McAuliffe, a teacher who had been selected to participate in the Teacher in Space program.

Nobody suspected that anything could go wrong, and in fact, shuttle flights had become so commonplace that television had stopped broadcasting them almost entirely -- the only reason they were there on that day was because of McAuliffe's history making flight. The explosion touched America, because that day started full of American pride, achievement and hope that we could put aside our cultural and racial differences and celebrate our united taming of space. Instead, we spent it united in sorrow for a dream deferred.

The moment inspired me to write a poem. I had been participating in a poetry writing workshop that semester, but I undertook this poem outside the auspices of the class. Later, I submitted the poem along with two others that I had written in the class to a campus contest which was judged by English department professors and was very competitive. To my surprise, I won the contest and the $250 prize that went with it.

I haven't really used this poem since then, other than donating it to an artist in San Antonio who had a piece of art incorporating what he believed was some insulation, found on a Florida beach, from the Challenger. He put the poem on the back of the art piece.

So, on this 28th day of January, 2006, on the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I am taking the liberty of posting that poem, dedicated to the Challenger astronauts and their families and loved ones.

The Risk of Challengers
by Michael L. Hess

A bright flame,
it rises into the
morning sky, burning
a path through the air
like an inverted matchstick.
The hopes of mankind rest on this
match, descendent of the first glowing
embers that he found would broil his meat,
warm his body, run his engines, propel
his projectiles, destroy his world.
Reaching out in light and smoke,
man conquers space with fire,
whose glory occasionally
will consume the
most intrepid

Written February 1986 in memoriam for the Challenger.

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Blogger Mary B. said...

That was definitly a prize winning poem. I'm not trying to be funny, but since I was three at the time, the only thing I can remember is that one of the big TV networks did a television movie based upon the life of the school teacher who was on board. I remember that both of my parents sat down to watch it, a semi-rare thing.

1:45 PM  
Blogger The Movie Guys said...

I was 7 and at home from school sick with the flu, so I got to watch the whole thing on the news. Don't remember much else about it, though.

4:15 PM  
Blogger typingelbow said...

i was in the third grade, and our class watched the launch live. we didn't really understand what had happened with the explosion, but we knew something was wrong because our teacher started crying.
i think it was the next day when the teachers lead each class outside to say a prayer around the flagpole. i think that was the first time i saw a flag at half-mast.

12:30 PM  

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