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Tuesday, January 28, 2003

And You Are There

Juan Gato reminds us that the Challenger exploded during launch seventeen years ago today. This, as Juan notes, is one of those "where were you?" moments. I've mentioned this in Gato's comments section, but I'll do it here too. A Small Victory also has a post about this. (Note that nearly everyone in Juan and Michele's comments were little tiny big-eyed children when this happened, whereas I was...not. Whippersnappers. Turn down that music!)

I was in grad school. I taught (well, "taught") physics lab in the morning and had a math class (that I was taking) right after. The lab class ran from something like 8 to 11, so we hadn't had any contact with the outside world that morning. When I got to the math class, one of the other guys said that the space shuttle had blown up. We still had class. Afterwards, I went down to the grad student offices and found some of my friends. Toward the beginning of the month I mentioned my friend Dave. He was deeply affected by it, and several of us went up to his office to sit on the floor and mope. Someone poked his head in and asked what was going on, and Dave said that we were holding a wake.

I don't remember anyone having a TV at school. When I got home, of course, it was all over the tube, and it was on apparently every newspaper and magazine in existence. There was even an editorial cartoon showing a newsstand where every magazine had the same picture, of the two solid rockets going awry.

Except for a few of us students, I don't remember anyone in our department being terribly broken up about it. Some of my professors were not displeased. They thought that manned space flight was too dangerous. One of them was actually pleased, and when the next space shuttle was launched, he said, "I hope they lose another seven."

Lesson 1: There is no tragedy so awful that some asshole, somewhere, will not welcome it to vindicate his own crank agenda.

We learned this on 9/11, but it's good to remember that it always applies.

Another friend of mine I'll call L. L, for some reason, was the hardest hit of all of us---absolutely devastated. And he was the first one to start sending us tasteless Challenger jokes through email.

Lesson 2: Some people cope with sorrow in strange ways.

When the next shuttle went up more than two years later, I was still a grad student, this time TAing a "physics for poets" class. The kids were taking their first test of the semester, and the professor (a different professor, not any of those mentioned above) and I were proctoring it. There was a little room between the two big lecture halls where demonstration and AV equipment was stored, and the man in charge of the equipment had brought in a small TV to watch the launch.

I kept sneaking into this room to see how things were going. As launch approached I'd duck in to watch, then poke my head out to make sure none of the kids needed help. Sometimes they would, and I'd run up the steps and answer their questions, then run back down to watch. The launch took place toward the end of the period. One of the students who'd finished his test early burst in, wanting to know how it was going. "Solid rockets have separated," I told him, and that was when I realized that it was probably going to be OK.