Challenger’s legacy


“The shuttle blew up.”

When my friend Robbie told me that in the afternoon of January 28, 1986, I thought he was kidding.  I may have even said “You’re kidding,” in response.  For a ten-year-old who’d been fascinated with space exploration and NASA ever since he first asked his father what those little twinkling lights in the night sky were, and indeed for a country accustomed to unqualified success in the exploration of space, it was a kick to the gut.  The Space Shuttle Challenger, lost only a few moments after launch on a beautiful Florida morning.  How could this have happened?  Over the months and years that followed we’d learn about SRB’s, Morton Thiokol and O-rings and shake our heads at the realization that a faulty piece of rubber could have cost the lives of seven courageous astronauts (including the first schoolteacher in space) and dragged the triumphant American space program into a downward spiral of limited ambition.

It’s perhaps a lingering tragedy of the human experience that we quickly become inured to being awed, that the miraculous can become routine in the course of time.  The Apollo program ended when the voices questioning its cost finally became the majority, when it seemed that after achieving the ideological goal of beating the Soviets, the moon was “been there, done that.”  And the shuttle looked more like the beginnings of the starships we’d watched whipping across the galaxy in our favourite science fiction adventures, but its missions had become predictable, stale – Challenger and her sister ships were workhorses instead of explorers, deploying satellites and touching down again like an orbital version of FedEx.  Forgotten, largely, in that routine, was how dangerous space flight remained, even after nearly thirty years.  Until 1986, no American had ever died in space – the fire that claimed the lives of the three Apollo 1 astronauts occurred during a routine test on the launch pad.  Even the infamous Apollo 13 “successful failure” returned its crew unharmed.  It was inconceivable, even as we looked at that strange image of the two-pronged trail of smoke in the sky that such a thing could happen, given the reach of our technological genius.  When it did, we were shattered, and we stepped back.  And failure became a meme – telescopes broke, probes disappeared without trace and Columbia broke apart, killing its entire crew (including another first, the first Israeli astronaut), on re-entry in 2003.

Twenty-seven years after the Challenger tragedy, the space shuttle has flown for the last time.  In a political climate where the number one obsession is deficit and debt, the expensive notion of space exploration, where the financial return on billion-dollar missions is difficult to explain to the Tea Party congressmen who control NASA’s budget, is unpalatable to say the least.  Yet the promise and the appeal of what waits up there remain potent and meaningful, and retain their ability to stir the soul and set dreams alight.  Over the last several weeks Canada’s astronaut Chris Hadfield has been tweeting from the International Space Station, offering stunning pictures of our world from high above, where one cannot see a single trace of war, hunger, poverty or pop star shenanigans – merely the peace of a beautiful planet.  Hadfield nearly broke the Internet with his much-retweeted exchange with William Shatner, advising the “Captain” that he was in standard orbit and detecting signs of life.  When considering the scope of the universe beyond our little world, our recurring conflicts over lines on maps and ever-dwindling resources seem to be the apex of Lilliputian pettiness and futility.  Yet we still hope.  Could the final frontier unite us as everyone who’s ever seen an episode of Star Trek hopes it will?  Could we at long last stop obsessing about who has the most toys and instead devote those energies toward a higher pursuit?

It seems to me that when Challenger died, much of our collective imagination went with it.  We chose to cut back, to scale down, to play things safe.  To outsource much of the work and the risk to the same Russians everyone was once desperate to defeat in the cosmic theatre.  When it comes to the exploration of space, we think small, cheap and forgettable.  Newt Gingrich absorbed his fair share of ridicule for suggesting during the GOP presidential primaries that the U.S. should try to build a lunar colony, and as far-fetched as that might seem, so was John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1961 that America intended to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth by the end of the decade.  Between promise and realization it took 8 years.  What’s even more frustrating is that when Kennedy spoke those words, scientists had no idea how to accomplish the task.  Today, we have all the technology we need to get us back to the moon or to Mars or even beyond; we lack only the will to do so.  (The cynic in me believes we might get there faster if one of these heavenly bodies is proved to contain vast reserves of oil.)

In his commemorative address offered to the nation on the evening of January 28, 1986, President Ronald Reagan spoke about the sacrifice of the Challenger crew and promised that they would never be forgotten; that the exploration of space would continue.  Yet I don’t believe that the lethargic careful dipping of our toes into the interstellar ocean is paying tribute to them in the way the substance of Reagan’s speech intended.  We should be doing more.  If humanity is fated to disappear from the universe without ever spreading itself beyond the confines of the pale blue dot it inhabits, it will be solely because of our lack of will.  Do we truly want our epitaph to be a Douglas Adams-esque pronouncement like “Galactic Chickenshits”?  Or is getting the chance to touch the face of God, as Reagan described it, worth the risk?  The Challenger crew believed it was.  The Columbia crew believed it was.  Deep down we know it is too.  The greatest tribute we can pay those who have lost their lives is to make their sacrifice mean something – to go on, to shake off the creep of apathy and to continue charging toward the blinking lights in the night sky on a tail of flame, carried by our science and propelled by our dreams – for they, like the spirits of the Challenger crew, truly have no limits.

Ex astris, somnia

The centre of our galaxy, as imaged by NASA.

They are pinpricks in the dark mantle of heaven, tiny oases of light in the desert of the night.  We stare at them when the clouds have parted and the artificial lights of the cityscape have gone, looking out into the universe, into the past.  Their shape has found its way into the iconography of every culture on earth.  They are a deep well of mystery to be unraveled, a trove of endless knowledge waiting to be decoded by scientific observation and analysis.  We entrust them with our wishes, and they are the vault of our dreams.

It is impossible to look up at the “heaventree of stars,” as James Joyce called it in Ulysses, and not experience a moment of transcendence.  Even astronomers, whose lives are spent cataloguing the universe and translating it into numbers, are still humbled by the beauty of stars.  Historical stargazers like Galileo, facing the wrath of the Church for casting doubt upon God’s divine order, could not stop peering up into the night sky.  Some, like Giordano Bruno, went to their deaths transfixed by the possibilities of worlds beyond the confines of Earth.  Stars may be, scientifically speaking, massive balls of burning hydrogen, but more than that, they are the very fires of imagination, reaching out to us from so far away.

Dreamers often trip over the sidewalk because they’re busy looking up.  I remember visiting my grandfather’s cottage as a boy and sitting on the dock long past sunset, armed with a pair of binoculars, and feeling overwhelmed by the sight above my head – where metropolitan light pollution back home kept the players restricted to familiar constellations like the two Dippers, out here in the north was an entire galaxy revealed; the Milky Way in all its splendor and sublimity.  The plethora of mosquito bites that revealed themselves the following morning was testament to how long I spent out there that night, lost in the possibilities of the grand everything.  Not appreciating it at the time, but understanding now that on that evening I was connected to the entirety of human history, to everyone who had ever stopped in the night, cast their eyes to the sky and if even for a moment, wondered.

From a purely scientific viewpoint, stars are fascinating.  The cosmic cornucopia of star types, from blue supergiant to brown dwarf.  The cycle of their birth and death, the clever universe recycling the debris left by a supernova into new stars and planets, and in our case, new life.  Black holes, pulsars, quasars, nebulae.  Beyond every turn in the cosmos lies a perplexing new construct to enthrall the curious and the seekers of truth.  Yet stars have an indelible spiritual quality also, something that cannot be reduced to an equation, a chemical reaction.

When we feel smallest, when we are walled in by the borders of our lives, the stars remind us that there is so much more – more than anyone can conceive in the longest lifetime, more than our species will ever be able to experience in its entire existence.  It is no surprise then, that many wonderful narratives have been written that take place out there, and that the ongoing narrative of humankind’s fledgling exploration of the stars continues to compel.  I’ve been a fan of both science fiction and science fact my entire life:  books about the U.S.S. Enterprise and the Apollo missions have rested side by side on my nighttable.  A most treasured possession was a plastic model of the space shuttle Discovery, acquired on a visit to Cape Canaveral and painstakingly assembled and painted by me and my father, with a place of honor among my collection of classic Lego Space.  The stars call to our very souls, inviting us to follow like beacons of inspiration.  Lighthouses of friendship and warmth amidst endless, oppressive darkness.  And we are more than willing to answer.

As we craft our tales of imagined far-off worlds, or calculate the gravitational pull of a red giant, the question remains:  what exactly are we looking for when we look at the stars?  The simplest answer may be that in kindling our dreams, the stars are ultimately like distant, tantalizing mirrors.  We look into them, squinting, peering long and hard, hoping to discover the missing elements of our own equation staring back at us.  Out in the farthest reaches of the universe, we are looking for ourselves.  That connection to the purest spiritual truth that has eluded us since our dawn and remains for now at least, like the stars, just out of reach – what it means to be human.

In Peace for All Mankind

Today is July 20, 2011.  42 years ago, Apollo 11 touched down in the Sea of Tranquility.  Forty-two freakin’ years.  My generation wasn’t even the proverbial glimmer in its father’s eye when the last guy (Eugene Cernan – I saved you a trip to Wikipedia) left the moon in 1972.  Your smartphone is infinitely more complex and powerful than the computer that guided the Apollo spacecraft to the surface of the moon and back.  Heck, even your wristwatch is probably more sophisticated.  So forty-two years ago we landed on the moon and forty-two years later we’re getting ready for the last space shuttle flight to come back to earth with the space program on fiscal life support and seemingly no clear direction as to where it’s going next – certainly not in terms of manned missions.  And far from being glued to their screens listening to Walter Cronkite describe Neil Armstrong’s descent from Eagle, people are likely more inclined these days to ask, “there’s still a space program?”

Public perception of NASA’s budget in the United States is that it accounts for as much as 20% of the total federal expenditure, when in fact it’s closer to 0.5%.  You have the country that arguably led the way into the heavens spending $600 billion a year on ways to kill people (which is always guaranteed to win lots of public support) when the entire Apollo program cost a total of $22 billion over ten years to put men on another world.  Thing is, if the people wanted more focus on outer space and voted accordingly, it would happen in a heartbeat.  So why don’t we?  When you think about the thousands of years of history that preceded July 20, 1969, the generations of civilizations looking up at the stars and wondering what was up there without the technological capability to see for themselves, the idea that human beings could ever look upon space with as much interest as they might have in a seven-year-old tax return is stomach-turning.  It’s a betrayal of the promise of who we are, and the worst form of cynicism.  Yet it happened.  Landing on the moon was cool once, became routine and then stopped altogether.  I’m at a loss to explain it, because I don’t see how you can look at those images the astronauts are tweeting from Atlantis and not be enraptured by the beauty, the fragility and the necessity of it all.

Opponents of the space program love to drag out the old cost-benefit rationale.  “What do our tax dollars get us?”  Certainly not a house in the Hamptons or a bridge in Brooklyn.  The greatest benefit of space exploration is not measurable by accountants, because it is in enriching the spirit.  It’s in asking questions of existence, faith and the human soul as much as any religion (which, by the way, gets numerous tax breaks without any demonstrable fiscal return).  It’s in expanding us beyond the confines of our tiny planet and imagining the possibilities of an entire universe – where human trifles that consume our thoughts and our fears today are reduced to the insignificance of sand grains in favour of something far greater.  Exploration united us on July 20, 1969 as Armstrong took that first step.  It can do so again – what is required is commitment, courage and above all else, curiosity.  And that is worth it.