30 Years Today: Christa and Me


christaThis in memory of the events of January 29, 1986 which impacted me greatly since NASA had my application:

When in the Spring of ’86 I became one of the final 40 contestants in the initiative to send a journalist up in space, the loss of the Challenger was still so recent the bodies had not yet been found on the ocean floor.

Maybe that’s why the TV crew who came to my door the day my name was announced seemed so eager. “She even looks like Christa!” said one of them. 

Which I kind of did, though here I’m making a face. (I was standing next to Gandhi in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London, and trying to not smile while mimicking his dour expression.)

me with 80s hair

“Have her children cling to her skirts!” said another.

We were all still in a kind of shock, I think, and maybe that’s why that news crew was trying to frame things in such a dramatic way. We hadn’t yet adjusted to the new reality. Masters of technology that we imagined ourselves to be, we thought we were in control of everything.

It’s a notion we humans cling to fixedly and relinquish with great reluctance.

Picture being on a plane as it taxis toward takeoff, a rolling rec room in most of our minds, in which folks read and doze and look out the window –  until it picks up speed and the trees blur and the tarmac goes fuzzy to your sight and somewhere inside, all your instincts as a land animal cry out in disbelief that this big-bellied metal hull will ever lift and soar in flight. The tiny bubble in the carpenter’s level of your brain leans way over to one side, and a small frightened voice deep inside you asks of your death, ‘Now? Today? This very minute?’ Then the plane straightens and climbs higher and with relief you turn back to your magazine, thinking, ‘Not yet then. Not this sight the last these eyes will behold.’

In the months before Challenger flew, teacher and Mission Specialist Christa McAuliffe said in her motherly and reassuring way, “It will be like taking a bus.” But it isn’t like taking a bus and it never was, as every career astronaut knows. It’s like riding a Roman candle.

Back when this first crew died what shocked us most was that we all watched it happen: one minute, seven hale and joshing Americans; the next, a blank sky. And then between that lost mission and the loss of Columbia in ’03 came that other event when, in an eyeblink, two mighty steel towers gave way to blank sky too.

I was just 36 when I applied to be the first journalist to fly in Low Earth Orbit. In the days just after January 28th I wrote in the Boston Globe that we owe God a death, as Shakespeare says, and that the Challenger Seven had paid their death-debt. They now flew free, I felt, beyond caring about control, or planning, or how many days might pass until a tiny planet tips enough to bring what its creatures call Spring.

I think of them today. “Give me your hand,” the black box caught one of them saying as their capsule hurtled quickly downward and the phrase is lovely, holding as it does all we can offer one another in love, or friendship, or at the Hour of Our Death. All, and perhaps enough.

Watch this, is you can bear to.  And under it, President  Reagan’s finest hour:

 

 

 

 

My Road Not Taken

This appeared in the Huffington Post  on Friday , the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Shuttle I almost got to ride on:

When in the Spring of ’86 I became one of the final 40 contestants in the initiative to send a journalist up in space, the loss of the Challenger was still so recent the bodies had not yet been found on the ocean floor. Maybe that’s why the TV crew who came to my door the day my name was announced seemed so eager. “She even looks like Christa!” said one of them. “Have her children cling to her skirts!” said another. We were all still in a kind of shock I think and maybe that’s why that news crew was trying to frame things in such a dramatic way. We hadn’t yet adjusted to the new reality. Masters of technology that we imagined ourselves to be, we thought we were in control of everything.

It’s a notion we humans cling to fixedly and relinquish with great reluctance.

Picture being on a plane as it taxis toward takeoff, a rolling rec room in most of our minds, in which folks read and doze and look out the window –  until it picks up speed and the trees blur and the tarmac goes fuzzy to your sight and somewhere inside, all your instincts as a land animal cry out in disbelief that this big-bellied metal hull will ever lift and soar in flight. The tiny bubble in the carpenter’s level of your brain leans way over to one side, and a small frightened voice deep inside you asks of your death, ‘Now? Today? This very minute?’ Then the plane straightens and climbs higher and with relief you turn back to your magazine, thinking, ‘Not yet then. Not this sight the last these eyes will behold.’

In the months before Challenger flew, teacher and Mission Specialist Christa McAuliffe said in her motherly and reassuring way, “It will be like taking a bus.” But it isn’t like taking a bus and it never was, as every career astronaut knows. It’s like riding a Roman candle.

Back when this first crew died what shocked us most was that we all watched it happen: one minute, seven hale and joshing Americans; the next, a blank sky. And then between that lost mission and the loss of Columbia in ’03 came that other event when, in an eyeblink, two mighty steel towers gave way to blank sky too.

I was just 36 when I applied to be the first journalist to fly in Low Earth Orbit. In the days just after January 28th I wrote in the Boston Globe that we owe God a death, as Shakespeare says, and that the Challenger Seven had paid their death-debt. They now flew free, I felt, beyond caring about control, or planning, or how many days might pass until a tiny planet tips enough to bring what its creatures call Spring.

I think of them today. Oh I think of them. “Give me your hand,” the black box caught one of them saying as their capsule hurtled quickly downward and the phrase is lovely, holding as it does all we can offer one another in love, or friendship, or at the Hour of Our Death. All, and perhaps enough.

Watch this is you can bear to. It’s very hard. And under it, for comfort, President Ronald  Reagan’s finest hour:

Standing Tall

liz-walkerFor over 20 years Liz Walker was a new anchor with WBZ-TV Channel 4 Boston. Last week I wrote about what great things she said as the keynoter at the recent Girl Scouts Leading Women Awards Breakfast, which you will see at the top here under “This Week’s Column.” It’s worth looking I think for the way it so exactly matches the spirit of the times.

These days she does amazing things in the world, both close at hand – as an ordained minister on staff at the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church – and far away in her work with the many innocent people in Dafur and the Sudan who are daily asked to suffer on a scale you and I can scarce imagine.

I first met Liz back in 1986 when she came to my living room with a Channel 4 cameraman to ask me what it felt like to be the only print journalist in New England to get to the finals in the NASA-sponsored competition to send one of us up in the Shuttle. Earlier that day another network had also sent a news team.

“Have the children cling to her skirts!” said the producer. “She LOOKS a little like Christa McAuliffe!” said cameraman. This was just four months after the Challenger blew and it was pretty clear they were setting this up as another Mother of Young Children Dies For NASA Story.

With the camera rolling, the reporter placed her big microphone before the small face of my Fifth Grade daughter. “Would YOU like to go up in space one day?” she asked her. “No WAY!” said the child.

“And how about you dear?” she then asked, lowering the mic to the height of our Second Gradeer – who pushed her hair quick behind her ears, took a step forward like one about to recite an ode and in a calm ‘teaching’ voice said, “No – because when I get big I’m going to be a mother and I don’t think a mother should leave her children.”

Thirty minutes later the news went out over AP wire: “Children of New England Space Finalist Oppose Her Going.” A news veteran pal was on the line to me within 60 seconds. “Don’t let them NEAR your kids!” she said – and so when Liz came to my living room that evening they were safely upstairs with their dad.

She asked me intelligent questions and I answered them and there was only kindness and thoughtfulness in the exchange. I still have the videotape of that interview somewhere and maybe I’ll dig it out and put it up here too. I wasn’t used to talking on TV back then so I seem really stiff and robotic, like a person who’d just had Novocain in both jaws and three or four Botox shots to the face but you’ll see Liz Walker just as she still is today, natural and curious and lovely.

Right now I’m watching the sun rise over the snowy rooftops and trying to line up all the work I have to do day. I don’t know what Liz has lined up for today but it’s a good bet it’s work on the side of the angels. You can see what she’s up to right now by going to her blog  On the Road.