HUCKABY: We still honor sacrifice of Challenger victims

It was cold that day. Frigid. Flirting with 0 degrees cold. School was even canceled.

I was home and so was my lovely wife, Lisa. She had taken the day off to drive in to Atlanta to interview for admission to a master’s program at Georgia State.

I was glad that school had been called off because there was a big event on television that I had wanted to see. The space shuttle Challenger would be launched that day from Cape Canaveral, which is what they called it back in the ’50s when those of my generation were watching the space program transcend from its infancy to the crawling years.

The space program blossomed, of course, grew into full adulthood. President John F. Kennedy had promised America that he would see to it that the United States would put a man on the moon and bring him home safely within a decade. We did put a man on the moon — five months ahead of schedule. JFK, tragically, was not alive to see it. But his vision provided the impetus.

We were proud of the moon landing. We had beaten the heathen Soviets. We had proved that capitalism and free enterprise and a free and democratic form of government were superior to communism and dictatorship and however it was that the Russians led their lives. America rocked.

Eventually we would partner with the USSR and other nations in the building of the International Space Station. We had a new place to visit in outer space so we had to have a way to get there — and get back. We went to work and developed the space shuttle that could take off, zoom into outer space, dock at the ISS and return to Mother Earth, landing like a glider on a giant runway.

The shuttle program excited Americans for a while, but eventually the new wore off, and takeoffs and landings — events that at one time had attracted our citizens to their television sets like magnets — were met with yawns and “ho hums.”

We were losing interest in the space program and Congress, who held the purse strings, was following suit. Massive budget cuts were looming on the horizon for NASA. But President Ronald Reagan was bound and determined to restore the stature that America had lost in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate and the ordeal of the Jimmy Carter presidency. He thought that the strong sense of “we can do anything” that the space program provided was instrumental as we entered the final throes of the Cold War.

He was looking for a way to juice up NASA and resurrect public interest. He came up with the plan of putting a regular citizen into outer space — and who better than a teacher, who could come back and share the experience with a generation of students.

A nationwide talent search began. People who wanted to pursue the opportunity filled out lengthy applications and wrote essays explaining why they should be picked. Eleven thousand entries flooded in and the field was narrowed and those who made the cut — “American Idol” had nothing on Ronald Reagan’s administration — were subjected to interviews and a series of physical and physiological tests and eventually Concord, N.H., school marm Christa McAuliffe was chosen.

Reagan’s ploy had worked and the nation was once again interested in the space program. The spunky McAuliffe became a national celebrity. She made the rounds of the television talk shows. She even appeared with Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” People liked her. People were interested in her, and a large segment of the population was, once again, energized in support of NASA. Mission accomplished.

After several delays the lift-off of Challenger was set for Jan. 28. It was cold in Florida that day, too. Thirty-six degrees. The lowest temperature for a previous launch had been 51. Some consideration was given to scrubbing the launch in favor of a warmer day, but the anticipation had been building and the nation was watching — including virtually every school child in America that hadn’t been told to stay at home because it was 0 degrees outside.

I was grabbing a quick shower when Lisa called for me to hurry up so as not to miss liftoff. I was drying my hair — I still had enough hair to dry with a towel in 1986 — as the countdown reached T-minus 10 seconds. The television cameras kept showing Christa McAuliffe’s family in the grandstand, eyes shaded, peering up toward the heavens.

The countdown reached zero, the engines fired, the big ship lifted up slowly, majestically toward space. The cameras followed the flight for 73 seconds and then the unthinkable occurred. There was an explosion and the Challenger split apart, different parts of the ship peeling off in opposite directions toward the Atlantic Ocean. The rubber gaskets that held an O-ring in place had malfunctioned — due to the cold temperatures.

It is a sight I will never forget, and now they tell me that it has been 25 years — a full quarter of a century.

Ronald Reagan would say of McAuliffe and the six other astronauts that lost their lives in the service of their country that day, “They slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God,” a paraphrase of a poem by World War II aviator John McGee Jr.

Twenty-five years. It seems like it was yesterday. May they rest in peace, and may we once again become a nation worthy of their sacrifice.

Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at dhuck08@bellsouth.net. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/darrellhuckaby.