Thursday, 7 January 2010

Reaching for Those Stars

Twenty four years ago this month, I was sat in the back living room of my childhood home watching the TV. It was early tea-time, just having got back from school. I was filling my ruddy pouches with ribena and crumpets. This scene wasn't a rarity, given how many hours I used to spend with my eyes attached to the screen by visual telebox adhesive, watching Australian soap operas, learning and mimicking the accents to annoy my siblings with. But what was about to happen in front of my eyes was one of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories, and one that has haunted me ever since.

There came a sudden change in tone by the presenter, and the BBC kids' show Newsround - one of the main staples of my early televisual diet - appeared with breaking news. I can still hear the tinny, 1980s retro dot-dash-theme tune that sounded like it was created on a fisherprice keyboard accompanied with bongo drums.

The Space Shuttle appeared on the screen. It was a familiar sight of sorts. For weeks and months the Space Shuttle and NASA had been in the news, and it had been talked about in school endlessly. NASA were sending up a teacher into space, a civilian. It was huge news. Forget Star Trek and the plastic TV shows. This was real. An impressionable child, I had become caught up in the excitement of this, of the very notion of space travel, and my elder sisters in particular had been charting the whole progress of the mission avidly, clutching their Kids' Encyclopedia of Space. One of the first complete pieces of writing I had ever produced was a poem on a spaceman. I may have spelt it spaseman, but the whole-hearted sentiment was there.

We felt like children of the new space exploration world. One day, maybe we would travel off the earth as easily as you might catch a plane to another country. The unexplored universe felt at our fingertips.

But something wasn't right. Before we could even speak, the pictures showed the Shuttle bursting into plumes of smoke, and the words "disaster" and "explosion" boomed out from the speakers, sifting through my ear drums and directly into the pit of my stomach. Something bad had happened. Extremely bad.

The horror and shock at the realisation over what had happened, still resonates today. Not that I actually fully comprehended for a short while what was going on at the time. Later we would learn, similar to the Titanic sinking, that complacency with new technology should never be allowed to affect our sensible judgements over what could go wrong. But I did know the main facts - the shuttle had broken up, the mission had become a tragedy. The footage was replayed over and over. The plumes of jet-stream, of smoke. The worst of all - the images of horrified onlookers, of the families of the astronauts, of the heart-wrenching grief.

I can still remember my sister asking my mother, days later, if the astronauts were alive, that maybe they could have survived and were stuck on a desert island somewhere like Swiss Family Robinson.
But this was not a Disney film, nor was there much of a happy ending. A small chunk of my very world had been blasted away along with the Space Shuttle. Rather than children of a new space exploration age, we were becoming fast, the children of a mass-digital-media-news reporting world, a concept we would begin to appreciate more and more as the 1990s and new century loomed. I pondered on Challenger briefly whilst I was viewing the horrific events on September 11 2001, live on rolling news channels with updates via the internet. It was almost a heart-breaking preparation of what was to come.

This was also my first experience of the impact of photography, how a still image - in this case the tragically iconic photograph of the strange Y shaped smoke trail - could actually have a bigger impact than video footage, for it is a moment frozen in time, allowing us to pause, consider, scrutinise what we are experiencing and emoting.

The Teacher in Space programme had gained world wide attention, making the Challenger disaster a world wide tragedy. One of the reasons why the programme had captured people's imaginations so vividly was due to the chosen teacher herself - Christa McAuliffe. Aside from the fact that NASA were sending 'one of us' up into space, Christa's personality, intelligence, exuberance for life proved to be inspirational. Her ideology was focussed on teaching how the ordinary person was just as important to study historically as the politicians, the Kings and Queens; that essentially, the ordinary person could make an impact on the world. She had also grown up watching the epic Apollo space race, and had long yearned to be part of this something special.

Christa had become my hero. Her aim was to inspire kids - and actually us all - to go and live your dreams, to believe you can do anything. There was nothing more inspirational than Christa herself, practising what she was preaching. Her mantra was 'reach for the stars', and while she lost her life, her legacy lives; Christa had the courage to not just have a dream, but to also live out this dream. Her story touched millions, and whilst I was taught an extremely harsh life lesson, I have also retained an interest in astronomy and NASA ever since. Christa succeeded by reaching out to so many, and fixing her place in history which would burn as long as any star. No one ever forgets a great teacher.

I wish I had her courage. For a so-called 'ordinary' person herself, Christa McAullife was actually anything but.

Christa's NASA bio
NASA photographs - contemporary and archived - arguably the finest source of copyright free images you will ever find anywhere.


Hayley said...

It's my earliest fully-formed memory. I'll never forget and I always feel saddened when I think of Christa. In a way I feel like I became a hardened cynic that day; I learned that fairytales don't really exist. It isn't supposed to happen when you're not much more than a toddler.

TrefforestGump said...

Me too completely Hayley. I know exactly what you mean. I think as we were kids, and a school teacher was on the shuttle, it was somehow more terrifying to take in. She just seemed like someone's mum - which of course, she was. Not that the other crew members weren't parents etc. too, but it was that connecting civilian factor that really tapped into our consciousnesses. And arguably, the astronauts were perhaps more aware of the risks involved -it's part of their training.
But indeed. I think I realised that day that life is actually pretty shit.
In a way, as I've gotten olden and read more about it, it's become worse, because you learn that it really should not have happened. They should never have launched in that weather.
You really should read Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane Hayley, if you haven't already, he writes a lot about Challenger and was a close friend to Judy Resnik. In a way, it made it more difficult to stomach, but at the same time makes you appreciate how damn brave these people are.

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