Heroes. I took a minute before sitting down to write this and looked up the dictionary’s definition of hero. I threw it aside. Last week was the thirtieth anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger accident. Many people discovered something new about me through my Facebook posts. That raised questions. The basic gist? There must be a story here.
There is always a story. Life is a story.
I was a junior in high school in 1986. I remember the morning of January 28th as if it were yesterday. I had just finished a history mid-term when our principal came over the intercom and made an announcement. “We want all of our teachers and students to be aware when they head home and turn on their televisions that the space shuttle has exploded. There appears to be no survivors.” Those were his words as nearly as I can recall them. I sat shell-shocked. It was strange. That morning I had awoken with an unsettling feeling. I was no space enthusiast. I sat at my small desk in a daze. Something traveled through me in that moment that I have never been able to explain. Over all of the years, I have learned not to try to explain it. We are connected to people in life without ever fully understanding why. And, in the end the why is not important. We are drawn to experiences and to people for reasons that we are not always mean to understand, but rather accept with gratefulness.
The Challenger accident occurred at a precarious time in my young life. To say that I was lost would have been a massive understatement. At sixteen, I was facing the first internal battles with my sexuality. I was living in a home where tension ruled most days. I had dreams. The majority of significant adult figures in my life made it clear that my dreams were both silly and unobtainable. Other people did those things. Other people were better than me. Other people were not me. I rarely went to class that year. Unless it was English, Music, Theater, or History, I was not in school. So much so, that I had to visit the truant officer second semester. Why bother? That was my attitude. If there was no hope for love, no possibility to pursue my dreams, why did school mater at all? In fact, why did anything matter? I am certain that other experiences in my past were also drivers. The end result was that I had basically given up on ME at the age of sixteen.
Challenger changed all of that. It changed me. My interest was far more in the astronauts than the accident itself. Although, I found the science, politics, and history fascinating. (I even ended up explaining what happened to people on my Tram Tour at the space center last week when they asked). I watched every televised hearing of the Roger’s Commission. I read every news article, and wrote to NASA for more information on everything from the shuttle systems to the astronaut’s biographical data. My theater adviser and one of our English teachers had been National Teacher of the Year in 1985. He had been a judge for The Teacher in Space Contest. I was able to sit and talk with him for hours about the process, about the program, and about Christa.
I attended many memorial services over the years and met several of the family members. I wrote to and corresponded with astronauts, engineers, and space enthusiasts. I learned many, many valuable lessons from the experience. The greatest of which was about the human spirit. While many people obsessed over solid rocket boosters and chain of command, I found myself enthralled by the seven people who had stepped aboard Challenger. And, they were amazing people to be sure. Thirty years later, I wonder how it is we still don’t grasp the greatest lessons from that mission.
For a number of reasons, the crew that was chosen was diverse. The reasons don’t matter in the end. The fact is that Challenger 51-L had an incredibly diverse crew. There were five men and two women, former military and civilians, a black man, an Asian man, a Jewish woman, A Buddhist man, Protestants and a Catholic, Democrats and Republicans. Why does that matter? It matters more than anything. Those differences paled for these people. They saw in each other commonness. They were a team, selected to achieve a common goal. They sought to capitalize on their differences as assets, to work in unison and see possibility. And, that is how each of them LIVED their lives. They LIVED with a sense of wonderment and adventure. Where most of us see ceilings, they saw stars. Everyone has fear and misgivings. Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone is human. The difference between a hero and an ordinary person is that a hero constantly strives to overcome those limitations. A hero lives to improve not only his or her circumstance, but also the lives of others. Heroes can be men or women, they can serve in any profession, and have any body type. They have various talents and experiences. THEY ARE ALL TEACHERS in their own way.
My senior year of high school, a wonderful teacher, Mrs. Jamo, suggested that I do an independent study project on Challenger. I did. I wrote over 160 pages on the accident and the astronauts. In fact, I was invited that year and for several years after to speak to English classes about heroism. I went from visiting the truant officer to graduating on the Honor Roll, speaking on a panel to the entire staff of my high school, and seeing my world open up like a flower. I spent that summer between junior and senior year in summer school for the credits. That exposed me to new friendships I would never have made. I realized how broken our education system is. We throw away potential left and right, giving the wealthiest kids the advantages and assuming anyone who learns differently or more slowly is less capable. That, I assure you is nonsense.
I decided that summer that I wanted to make the soccer team. Not an easy feat for someone who is a poor runner. I trained every day that summer until I could complete the two mile run. Many of those days, as I pushed, I would think about the people who inspired me and almost hear them saying “keep going.” When I ran the two miles in tryouts, I struggled. It was HOT. I admit it, I considered quitting and walking. Funny thing happens when you dig deep. Two of the team captains ran onto the track and pushed me to finish. I have never forgotten that. People truly are amazing. And, what I learned that year was exactly that. There is a spirit in living and accepting risk. You don’t always land where you had expected or even hope. You do live a more rewarding life because you constantly learn and grow. I don’t make varsity. That was okay. I made Junior varsity and I smiled every time I stepped onto the soccer field.
I could write about my experience for hours. Why does it matter is what you want to know. Not a week goes by that I do not think about those seven people and the impact their examples made on my young life. In studying Challenger and researching, I discovered how everything is connected in a new way. I found myself intrigued by the history, the politics, the science, the mythology, the PEOPLE. Life is all about connection. And, connection is something you are meant to feel, not explain. We all need inspiration. Inspiration is all around us. There is no secret to life. Life becomes something spectacular when you see stars and remove ceilings.
I’ve fallen back many times over the years. I’ve never completely given up. There is a purpose to everything in life. The sad reality is that if Challenger had been successful, it likely would not have touched as many people. Human beings often pay more attention to tragedy than to triumph. That is often how we designate heroes, by the manner in which a person dies. Challenger taught me something priceless: it takes no courage to die. We all die. It takes immense courage to LIVE. Most of us never fully embrace what living means.
I don’t believe that Dick, Judy, Mike, Christa, Ellison, Ron, or Greg would regret stepping onto that space shuttle. I don’t think for one second that they would want the world to mourn their deaths as much as they would ask that you celebrate their lives, their spirit of adventure and possibility. I don’t think they would want us to stop exploring as far and wide as we can imagine. They would say “reach for the stars”—all of them. And, I am grateful every day that they lived to have the chance to teach a young, lost sixteen-year-old girl that lesson in a profound way.
And, that is why I cried when I sat in Mission Control, and stood before Judy’s T-38 training suit. It’s why I shed tears when I watched the space shuttle launch in 2006. It’s why I always find tears trail over my cheek when I visit Arlington or Concord, and why I stand in awe in front of The Space Shuttle Discovery which took Judy on her first mission. My tears are never tears of sadness. They are evidence of an overflowing gratefulness, and the hope that somehow, somewhere, those seven souls know that they made a difference.