The mission page for Space Shuttle mission 51-L looks pretty much the same as for any other mission. Until you skim past all the verbiage about the launch and orbit stats (not too many of those) and see “Landing: None. KSC Landing planned after a 6 day, 34 minute mission.”
The words make you catch your breath. The sheer, clinical, tidiness of them. But of course — what else would they say? “Landing: a pile of burning debris in the Atlantic Ocean”? Like the rest of the mission history, it is professional, scientific.
Professional. These were professionals, after all: all of them, even the least experienced, the civilian whose presence overshadowed the others in the media and who just by being on board ensured that millions of schoolchildren were watching as the twin spirals of smoke drifted off into the clear Florida January sky.
Professional. Which is as it should be. Yet, somehow, in the mission objectives and the mission “highlights” — highlights which never took place — there is a sense of deep loss. “Was scheduled to have…”; “would have been deployed…”; “would have been spent in preparation of…” Experiments never performed, feats never accomplished, lessons never taught, dreams never fulfilled.
There would be other losses: January 27 marks the Apollo 1 fire, the first time when American men died in pursuit of space. February 1 marks the loss of Columbia, again with all hands aboard.
But Challenger was different: as a country, we had enough experience, we thought, with this space business that it was easy, safe, or relatively so. Although the launch was shown in classrooms — primarily because of Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space — it wasn’t on the networks, except for cable. Shuttle missions were old hat. We were naive.
We’re not naive now. Columbia struck us to the core and filled us with grief, but it didn’t break our hearts like Challenger did. Instead of “Oh, my God, how could that happen?” it was “Dear God. Not again.” There is a difference.
But they weren’t naive, the professionals. They would have gone in knowing the dangers, and they did it anyway. And for that, we honor their memories.
Rest in Peace:
Francis R. Scobee
Michael J. Smith
Judith A. Resnik
Ellison S. Onizuka
Ronald E. McNair
Gregory B. Jarvis
Sharon Christa McAuliffe
And thank you.