Friday, January 28, 2011

The Sight of Challenger, 25 Years Later

It looked plainly malevolent, the white trails of the two booster rockets streaking to the left and to the right, minds of there own, out of man's control, above the explosion. The image of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, which occurred 25 years ago today, is locked into American history now. You remember where you where when you saw it happen, if you were alive and near a TV on that day in 1986. Because of the image, most of us remember the shock of watching it happen live, but memories--especially memories abetted by strong imagery, are often faulty. I recently found a story listing seven myths about the Challenger disaster, and the first myth was that lots of people saw it happen live on television. In fact, relatively few people saw it live--many people were at work, of course, but even those with access to a TV probably didn't see the explosion as it happened. It was a different world then: three broadcast news networks, all of which had cut away from the launch before the disaster, and a new cable news service called CNN which did television everything that happened, live. No Internet, of course. Most of us heard about it later, when ours phones started ringing.

Another myth: The astronauts died instantly in the fireball 73 seconds after launch. They were alive when the shuttle hit the water at two minutes and 45 seconds after breakup. One of those things that's interesting to know.

I also found the following description of the event, from Don DeLillo's novel Underworld:

Space burial. He thought of the contrails on that blue day out over the the boosters sail apart and hung the terrible letter Y in the still air. The vapor stayed intact for some time, the astronauts fallen to the sea but also still up there, graved in frozen smoke, and he lay awake in the night and saw that deep Atlantic sky and though this death was soaring and clean, an exalted thing, a passing of the troubled body into vapor and flame, out above the world, monogrammed, the Y of dying young.

He wasn't sure people wanted to see this. Willing to see the systems failure and the human sufferng. But the beauty, the high faith of space, how could such qualities be linked to death? Seven men and women. Their beauty and ours, revealed a in failed mission as we haven't seen it in a hundred triumphs. ..

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