Friday, January 29, 2016

Christa McAuliffe, local girl.

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Hard to believe it's been that long...

I am by no means a space junkie.

As a kid, I was excited when Alan Shepard was shot into space, up and down. Part of the excitement was that, for the first and only time, we had a TV in the classroom - a 12", rabbit-eared black and white box that someone's dad had brought in for us. There we were, nearly 50 kids in the classroom, all craning our necks so we could eye-witness (at least via television) this marvelous occurence. Made even more exciting and marvelous because Alan Shepard (while not a Catholic, which would have made it more exciting) was from New Hampshire. Almost a local!

Over the years, I paid quasi attention to what was going on, space-wise. But on that July evening in 1969, when the first man walked on the moon, I went out on our front steps, looked up at the moon, and yawned. Having spent the entire day taken no great leaps, but many small steps to wait on customers at Big Boy's, I was tired.

I liked the Right Stuff, both the book and the movie.

But I was never an especially avid follower of what was going on in space.

The Challenger flight stirred up plenty of local interest. After all, Christa McAuliffe had grown up outside of Boston. She was a local girl. She was one of us. She was roughly my age, an Irish Catholic parochial school girl. If she'd grown up a few miles further west, and I'd grown up a few miles further east, we might have gone to the same high school. How many relatives and friends do I have who are teachers? She was one of us.

So, while I probably thought that launching a teacher into space was little more than a publicity stunt, I was rooting for Christa.

At the time of the Challenger disaster, I was working for a small firm in Cambridge, the consulting and software wing of a company that did most of its business on Wall Street. We all logged plenty of miles on a shuttle of our own: the Eastern Shuttle that ran hourly - and more than hourly, if there was a spillover crowd - between Logan and LaGuardia. No one called it the Eastern Shuttle. We just short-handed it as The Shuttle.

On any given day, at least one or two of our colleagues was on The Shuttle.

In late morning, our receptionist came over the PA and announced, "I just heard the news: The Shuttle's gone down."

We all ran out of our offices, doing a quick nose count, asking each other: Who's in New York today? Who's on The Shuttle.  We knew that our guys would have been on the 6:30 a.m. or the 7 a.m., the ones we took. But you never knew...

How parochial we felt - and yet how relieved - when we found out that Judy was talking abou the Space Shuttle Challenger, and not the Eastern Shuttle.

Over the follow on days, I followed the news closely.

Unlike the other astronauts, who were all "real" astronauts, Christa McAuliffe was a civilian. One of us.

There were the pictures of her parents, who looked like everyone's parents, stunned and sorrowing in the audience, watching as their daughter died before their eyes. There was her husband, there were her kids. And the kids she taught. Her sibs, her colleagues.

They were all local.

Just like us.

The closest I'll ever get into space was a simulated Journey into Space I took at the Reuben Fleet Science Center in San Diego, a billion years ago. (It gave me vertigo.) That and the space shot I sent a bit of my husband's ashes on - one of his last wishes.

I have no idea what NASA's up to.

I don't really devote a lot of my inner space to outer space.

But yesterday, I was thinking a bit about Christa McAuliffe, and feeling a bit sad for her family. She was a local girl. Just like us.

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