Shuttle Challenger disaster is a reminder to enjoy the quiet times

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Last November, there was a lot of media buzz over the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy.

People recalled precisely where they were the moment they learned of the killing on Nov. 22, 1963. The familiar Zapruder film footage taken in Dealey Plaza during that dreadful day in Dallas was shown over and over, as was the clip of CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite removing his thick, black horn-rimmed glasses and trying to keep his composure as he announced to the nation that the president was officially declared dead at “1 p.m. Central Standard Time, 2 o’clock Eastern Standard Time, some 38 minutes ago.”

Today, such a shocking event would be announced nanoseconds after the fact through Twitter feeds and Instagram posts with little or no verification. There would be no nationally galvanizing Cronkite moment, which I’m just guessing would somehow diminish the gravity and emotional impact of the situation.

I don’t have a personal recollection of the JFK assassination because I was only six months old at the time. I was too busy being mesmerized by rattles, begging for milk and trying to figure out how to bust out of that dang crib.

For many of us born between the Baby Boomers and the Gen X crowd, two flashbulb moments imprinted on our memory banks include the day in 1980 when John Lennon was killed and the day in 1981 when John Hinckley shot President Ronald Reagan. Some remember what they were doing when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 or when they watched that bizarre slow-speed chase of murder suspect O.J. Simpson on a California highway in 1994.

For the Millennials there was Sept. 11, 2001. For the iGeneration, the most brain-searing moment was probably the first Facebook selfie of Kim Kardashian’s baby bump.

Jan. 28, 1986, is one day I’ll never forget. That’s the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live TV before the eyes of millions of Americans. My own two eyes happened to be viewing the mid-day launch from the living room of my parents’ home. I had just graduated with a degree in journalism and after sending out a slew of resumes was cooling my heels and waiting to see which of my potential employers was interested in hiring a future Pulitzer Prize-winning scribe.

I remember lying on the brown shag carpet and settling in to watch the launch, which by that time in the history of the shuttle program seemed routine. This mission was a bit different, though, as among the seven people aboard the shuttle was the first civilian to participate in a flight to space, a teacher named Christa McAuliffe.

In classrooms across the U.S., school children were also tuned in to the live TV coverage to see the historic event unfold.

The initial stage of the flight appeared to proceed as planned with a big rumbling, churning blast of smoke and fire flashing out in every direction and the rocket’s tall support bracket releasing its hold. But then as the cameras tracked Challenger’s progress toward the upper atmosphere, a huge explosion suddenly erupted. Adding to the surreal quality of the event was the fact that the NASA announcer kept reeling off velocity, altitude and down-range distance figures even after the explosion occurred.

I remember being stunned by the explosion and the disintegration as the twin rocket boosters trailed off in opposite directions and then turned toward one another to create the impression of a pair of bull’s horns against the cloudless blue sky. As the horror of a nation was sinking in, the debris floated down in slow motion toward the Atlantic, leaving vertical trails of thick, white smoke and taking our country’s sense of invincibility with it.

The tragedy was experienced in stages, just like the planned space mission itself. Time seemed to stop as everyone who was watching live initially wanted to believe that what they were witnessing was just some misunderstood part of the process. Then came the gruesome realization of the human carnage that was actually taking place. Then came the mental game of concocting some scenario in our minds whereby the astronauts could possibly survive by maybe ejecting or having some super-secret NASA-designed contingency for such an explosion that would allow the crew to fall safely to earth and be rescued in the ocean waters.

And then, finally, the understanding we had just seen in real time the sudden deaths of seven brave men and women who had “slipped the surly bonds of earth,” as Reagan later put it, for the purpose of advancing our collective knowledge of space exploration.

Memories of the Challenger disaster were dredged up last month when my family joined the Scouts of Pack 42 on a tour of Space Center Houston. When the incident was brought up during a presentation, I recalled the aftermath of the tragedy, the government investigation and the scrutiny of O-rings and politicians casting blame in this direction or that, using the disaster to advance their political agendas.

I wondered what must have been going through the minds of the astronauts who would eagerly volunteer to climb into the next space capsule affixed to huge tanks of highly combustible rocket fuel.

Then I thought about how people everywhere, every day, experience their own personal explosions in the form of divorce, depression, disease, financial duress, addiction, loneliness, abuse and spiritual brokenness. Assuming they survive those explosions, how do they find a way to clean up the debris, mop up the ashes, try to figure out what went wrong and then gather the courage to climb back into that capsule knowing another calamity could be minutes away.

Having survived a few explosions myself, I try – not always successfully – to minimize the carping I do about the temperature not being just right, the trash collection not being on time, people cutting me off in traffic, loud-mouth politicians, my hair turning gray, standing in long lines and other minor annoyances.

Most of all, I try my best to relax and enjoy those moments in between the explosions without carrying around the emotional baggage from the previous one because you never know when the next one is going to hit.

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