Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Boldly Go

The boy stopped in at his dorm room briefly, after his mid-morning class. A couple things to fetch before the afternoon’s slate of activities kicked in. He flicked on the radio, set to the very local AM station, and noted his good fortune: a news update.

The report had begun already. The boy tried to discern what was going on in the story being reported, but without the introductory remarks to help him, he was a little at-sea. The reporter was hushed, speculative, without a bit of the usual “hey I’m on the radio” news-but-nearly-entertainment spark in his voice. Occasionally another voice emerged from the audio background, and the boy instantly recognized it.

Mission Control.

The boy had been greatly interested in the American space program ever since he could remember. He’d lie on the living room floor with a map, taken from the centerfold of an issue of National Geographic, of The Solar System, and study it for great long periods of time (as was befitting of a universe that was very old indeed). His imagination had been fired by episodes of original-series Star Trek, and by dim memories of the Apollo moon landings. Any time there was mention of the space program, or of space exploration, the little kid in him dropped everything and listened.

And so, he listened.

It was bad.

Well, something was bad, at least, but the boy was still having trouble taking the radio-reported puzzle pieces and assembling them into a completed mosaic.

Downrange” … “obviously we have a major malfunction” … “there is no downlink” …

Rockets had gone up and then come down, unceremoniously, before. Film clips of that sort of thing were common in video montages of “the agony of defeat” – especially the attempts by the Soviet space program, oddly-shaped projectiles that leapt briefly into the air before coming straight back down and setting their own launch pad on fire. Nothing like the majestic Saturn V rockets thundering off the pad at Cape Canaveral …

Oh wait. Oh hell. That was happening today, wasn’t it. That was supposed to be this morning.

The teacher going into space.

And something went wrong. But they still won’t tell me what it is. Because maybe they don’t know.

The boy had to get to lunch, on his way to afternoon classes. He picked up his things, shut off the radio, and headed out, with that awful sense that something is very wrong in the world but without the proper details to suggest just what.

On a whim, the boy detoured from his usual dorm-to-dining-hall path and headed for the campus center. Something suggested to him that there might be more information there.

Sure enough. There were at least sixty students crowded around a television mounted on a tall metal cart just outside a campus center convenience store, staring, shaking their heads, not saying very much. Dan Rather was the talking head, and next to him was a scale model of a Space Shuttle, mounted on its maroon fuel tank, flanked by its two solid-rocket-boosters. The boy instantly knew exactly what he was going to hear, as he tried to get closer to the TV.

There was no announcement on the fate of the crew, but it appeared … there was no way they could survive …”

He stood and watched for another few minutes. Then he turned and headed back to the dining hall. Such a cliché to say that while the world looked exactly as it had for days and months and years before, there was now something completely different. But it was true.

Hi all,” the boy said to a table full of his friends. One of them pulled out a chair and pointed to it, and the boy sat down, with a small smile of thanks. “Ready for this?”

What?”

Challenger just went down.”

What?”

Space Shuttle. They think it crashed just after lifting off, just now.”

The boy had to do quite a bit of work to convince his friends that he wasn’t pulling their legs. “Would I make a joke about that sort of thing?” Not merely because he wasn’t heavily into pulling practical jokes that had to do with seven astronauts reportedly dying horribly; but because people knew he was something of a Trek nerd, and therefore probably was a space program nerd too.

Since the Internet and smartphones were decades away, they had to take his word for it until they could get to a TV or a radio and see for themselves.

Meanwhile, the boy thought, for the first time in his life, manned space flight was not certain to end in triumph, like all those TV episodes. Really, it was just as dangerous as it always had been. For heaven’s sake (pun?), for years we’d been parking humans on top of a container full of many tons of intensely flammable fuel and lighting the stuff on fire, in the hopes that the humans could be launched into orbit, and then somehow those humans could make their way to the moon or somewhere, and then could actually make it home. (And usually, those efforts were supported by a roomful of computers, the equivalent of whose computing power now resides in the single iMac sitting on my desk here, from which I am blogging.)

What could possibly go wrong?

Apparently, the investigation eventually concluded, the effects of unusually cold Florida weather upon a tiny little O-shaped rubber ring inside a solid rocket booster. That’s what could go wrong.

Eight zillion little details, and not a one of them is allowed to go wrong. Otherwise … disaster.

The boy used to think it was ridiculous that, on every single Star Trek episode, something went wrong aboard the Starship Enterprise. What kind of rattle trap are they sending Captain Kirk out there on? That’s the flagship of Starfleet Command?

The boy didn’t think that, so much, anymore.

He even started to think about the eight zillion little details involved when cars started. Or when basement furnaces kicked in on a chilly morning. Or when band buses pulled out of the parking lot, headed for faraway places that were not, in fact, that far away really.

So he had even greater, even more firmly renewed respect for the people who were willing to climb on top of all that rocket fuel and agree to have someone light the fuse … and then spend a week surrounded by nothing but vacuum that you can’t breathe when your air hose snaps, and surrounded by no gravity to push against and nothing to grab hold of when you let go of your tether or your handhold.

Breathtaking, jaw-dropping, brain-freezing, heart-in-your-throat -grade peril … cheerfully accepted. That’s the reality of space exploration, and that’s okay with us, say our astronautical hero types. Or at least that’s what we’re showing the cameras, even if there’s a tiny sliver of terror hanging out in the back of our minds, since with Gemini and Apollo and Skylab behind us, we know full well what potential challenges we’re getting ourselves into.

Thirty years ago this morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger made its final launch, Mission STS-51-L. Commander Francis R. Scobee, Pilot Michael J. Smith, Mission Specialists Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Judith Resnick, and Payload Specialists Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe went out to explore, and didn’t come home. Doubtless they had some idea that there was risk involved; but that didn’t keep them from going. There was work to be done; there were things to be learned.

And now, there are folks in orbit, as we speak, aboard the International Space Station, and it doesn’t ever make the news. They’re up there, quietly doing great work, in their little tiny bubble of hospitable environment, surrounded by the great beyond. They have to get up there, somehow, and they do. They have to get back to Earth somehow, and they do that too. In part, they do all that thanks to the people who were charged with figuring out what (and who) went wrong, thirty years ago, so that humans might continue to focus on more lofty goals than just getting up there and getting back down.

As it turns out, the folks who first wrote the words “to boldly go where no man has gone before” either were strikingly prescient … or they didn’t know the half of it.

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January 28, 2016 Posted by | heroes, news, science, technology | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment