Thursday, January 28, 2016

Thirty years after: Challenger

Miss Johnson was trying to get our Algebra II class to simmer down and focus on, you know, math stuff. One of the guys wasn't in his seat when she called the roll, but he appeared in the doorway of the classroom a short time later.

"You'd better have a good excuse," she told him.

"The shuttle just exploded!"

She thought he was kidding at first. We all did; Matt was a notorious jester, who would do anything to break the tedium of schoolwork. It was only the second or third time he said it, with a look of utter horror on his face, that we realized he was serious.

Maybe Miss Johnson knew it was important for us to witness the moment, as terrible as it was. Or maybe she just sensed  that she wouldn't get any work out of us that day. We trooped down to the library, buzzing with morbid curiosity, and stood in a crowd around the TV. Over and over, the news showed that familiar arc of smoke and flame as the shuttle blasted off, and then the moment when the familiar turned strange, the miracle of flight turning to disaster and death. The walk back to Algebra II was a lot quieter.

We were too young, at least those of us who were students, to remember earlier tragedies that marked humanity's ascent beyond earth. The magic had become commonplace, and we'd forgotten the climb has a cost, one that too often has to be paid in blood.

And there's no neat ending to this. So long as we are human, we'll seek to push our boundaries. It may be from curiosity, or necessity, but it will happen. Sometimes, we will triumph.

And sometimes, those who are left behind will watch, and mourn, and strive to make the next leap a little better.

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