Tag Archives: shuttle Challenger

Recalling a ‘faint-praise’ compliment

NASA has just launched another rocket with a payload bound for Mars. It’ll get there in due course, land and then stick a probe into the Martian dirt to hunt for signs of life.

All of these unmanned missions make me long for a return to the manned events, those with human beings launched into space. Maybe one day we’ll send folks into deep space to explore the way only humans can do.

I hope to live long enough to watch it happen. I plan to clench my fists tightly during the entire mission, just as I did when I would await the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches with my mom during the 1960s.

That brings me to another story I want to retell here.

In the 1980s, NASA had this bold idea to send a journalist into space. The space agency put the word out to all working American journalists — print and broadcast — and asked them to apply.

Being the space junkie I was at the time — and remain, to a lesser degree in my older age — I applied. I filled out the application and submitted what I thought was a brilliantly worded essay explaining why NASA should pick little ol’ me to chronicle space flight in real time to the world sitting 200 miles below the orbiting craft.

I was living and working in Beaumont, Texas, at the time. NASA headquarters is situated just west of Beaumont in Houston. I figured, hey, if they pick me NASA ‘s travel costs would be next to zero!

I waited. And waited some more. I began grousing about not hearing anything from NASA about the status of my request to fly into space. Then a colleague of mine at the Beaumont Enterprise sought to “reassure” me, to “comfort” me against the anxiety I was feeling. I mentioned to my colleague Rosie that NASA was probably going to go with some big hitter, some network news star everyone knew.

“Oh, no they won’t,” Rosie answered. “They’re going to pick a nobody … just like you.”

I took that as a compliment of sorts.

The journalist in space launch never occurred. NASA then sought to launch a teacher into space. A teacher boarded the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986 and then died along with her crewmates 73 seconds after liftoff when the ship exploded.

I plan to live forever with the proverbial “what if?” question that will lurk in my noggin. It comes me to every time I hear of a space flight and as I await the day we return human beings to space.

In other news, Challenger blew up 30 years ago today

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Republican presidential candidates are debating at this very moment.

I’m a bit weary from listening to it all, so I’ll recall a tragic moment in U.S. history.

Thirty years ago today, the phone rang on my desk at the Beaumont Enterprise. I answered it. It was my wife, who worked down the street in downtown Beaumont, Texas.

“What’s going on? I just heard the shuttle blew up,” she said.

I turned to my computer, punched up the wire and saw the bulletin: “Challenger explodes.”

I blurted out a curse word and told her “I gotta go!”

I turned on the TV. The video was horrific.

Seventy-three seconds into a flight the shuttle Challenger blew up and seven astronauts were dead . . . in an instant.

We were stunned at our newspaper. We stood there, transfixed by what was transpiring. We heard over and over the radio communication to the Challenger, “Go at throttle up.” Then came the blast. It was followed by silence before the communicator told the world, “Obviously a major malfunction.”

I wouldn’t feel that kind of shock until, oh, the 9/11 attacks 15 years later.

But what happened next at our newspaper was that we would plan to do something the paper hadn’t done since the attack on Pearl Harbor. We decided to publish an “Extra.”

It contained eight pages of text and photos from that ghastly event. It contained an editorial page, which I cobbled together rapidly. I wrote a “hot” editorial commenting on the grief the nation was feeling at that very moment.

We went to press about noon that day and we put the paper in the hands of hawkers our circulation department brought in to sell the paper on the street. It went into news racks all over the city.

Through it all the tragedy reminded us — as if we needed reminding — of how dangerous it is to fly a rocket into Earth orbit.

Of course, it would be determined that a faulty gasket malfunctioned in the cold that morning in Florida. The shuttle fleet would be grounded for a couple of years while NASA figured out a way to prevent such tragedy from happening in the future.

We would feel intense national pain, of course, in February 2003 when the shuttle Columbia would disintegrate upon re-entry over Texas, killing that crew as well — including the mission commander, Amarillo’s very own Air Force Col. Rick Husband.

They both brought intense pain to our nation.

Challenger’s sudden and shocking end, though, remains one of those events where we all remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard the news.

And to think that some Americans actually thought those space flights were “routine.”

 

How do you prepare for a trip … to Mars?

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Space travel always has intrigued me.

I wanted to fly into space. Indeed, I applied once for NASA’s “journalist in space” program, hoping the space agency would pick me to be the first working journalist to report from Earth orbit.

The program ended on Jan. 28, 1986, when the shuttle Challenger blew up, killing all seven crew members — including the first teacher ever chosen for a space mission.

Well, we’ve been to the moon. Twelve men walked on its surface, making them quite an exclusive club of adventurers; there should have been 14 of them, except that Apollo 13 didn’t make it to the moon’s surface.

One of those men was interviewed by the AARP magazine and was asked about a possible — if not probable — flight to Mars.

Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission, said the greatest danger facing those who land on Mars will be “mental status. It is the growing isolation, the irritation, the realization that this is the way it’s going to be.”

Think about Aldrin, by the way, for just a moment. Does anyone know off the top of their head the name of the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean? Or the second person to break the sound barrier in a jet? Most of us, though, do know the name of the second man to walk on the moon. Hey, I’m just thinking out loud for a moment.

I’ve tried to ponder over the years as a Mars mission became more of a probability: How does NASA find the right person to participate in a mission that will take years to complete?

What in the world does the space agency ask the prospective candidate?

How will you cope with knowing you’re going to be many millions of miles from Earth? How willing are you to accept the possibility that you might not return home? The moon missions were a relatively simple mission compared to this one; do you have what it takes to spend years in a space suit?

I guess I am intrigued by the psychological makeup of the individuals chosen to make this journey.

Aldrin has written that we could land on Mars by 2040. Let me see: I’ll be 91 by then. That’s too old to make the trip.

However, if my luck holds out, I’ll be around to see it and if my luck is even better, I’ll have enough of my marbles still intact to know and appreciate what’s happening in real time.

Aldrin thinks the commitment to land on Mars will come during the next president’s administration. “The next president,” he told AARP, “will use the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions to say the U.S. will lead international efforts to land on Mars within two decades.”

I pray that he’s right.