From time to time I run a blog post from a guest writer, and I’m pleased to post this from my friend Dr. Jeannine Love, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Here Jeannine reflects on the launch of the last Space Shuttle that happened last week.
I, for one, am relieved to see the space shuttle fleet retired. I realize that this is not necessarily a popular opinion. I watched the launch of Atlantis and the seemingly countless interviews with weeping grandmothers and space-enamored children who feel cheated that they will not get to walk on the moon during a space shuttle mission, or see the earth through the shuttle windows as they cavalierly orbit the planet. Those childhood dreams, however, are simply outweighed by my own childhood ghosts. Specifically, the ghost of the Challenger.
In January of 1986 I was in third grade. I had just turned 9, just returned back to Mrs. Kolpien’s classroom after winter break, my favorite color was purple. I tended to become obsessed with whatever it was I was writing a report about at the time. Hence I have an odd affinity for quarks, giraffes, kangaroos. But space travel? No, not really. Maybe Mrs. Kolpien should have had us write a report on the space shuttle; that would have piqued my interest. Of course, then I might have understood what was happening when the Challenger disappeared into two plumes of spiraling thick smoke.
Mostly, that’s what the space shuttle program has been to me: two plumes of spiraling smoke and an odd sinking feeling in my stomach. I say “odd” rather than “horrifying” or “sickening” because at the age of nine I didn’t quite understand what was happening. I’m sure Mrs. Kolpien gave some age-appropriate explanation to her “little erkjays” (although, who knows, considering her term of endearment for her students was “jerks” in pig latin). Perhaps my parents did as well. If so, I don’t remember it. All that remains in my memory is that indelible image of two plumes of smoke separating, surging toward the heavens, and then turning earthbound. For me, this image is forever tied to prospect of a shuttle launch and replays in my head each time I hear of a new shuttle mission.
As if that weren’t enough to solidify my immortal fear of all things shuttle-related, the Challenger disaster was immediately followed by the movie Space Camp in which a well-meaning robot creates a system malfunction that launches his camper friend (Leaf/Joaquin Phoenix) into space with the tagline, “Max. And. Jinx. Friends. For-Ev-Er.” I remember being furious with that robot, Jinx. What did he think he was doing? Friends don’t send friends to their deaths inside exploding space ships! I clutched my hands and closed my eyes, certain that the little campers were being propelled toward imminent disaster. Looking back, I have to wonder, didn’t someone producing Space Camp consider it might be somewhat problematic timing? That the children across the nation who had tuned in to watch Christa McAuliffe and the Challenger liftoff in their classrooms might not be emotionally recovered enough for this movie? In my little nine-year-old brain the shuttle program became synonymous with equipment malfunction and tragedy.
Now, every time I even think about a shuttle launch my chest constricts a bit. Although I sometimes watch them, I prefer not to – if another bursts into a billion bits I certainly don’t want to watch it live. When I heard that Gabrielle Giffords’s husband, Mark Kelly, had decided to go on his final mission, I was mortified. What if he were blown to bits upon liftoff? What if he disintegrated like the Columbia on return? I was nearly paralyzed with fear on behalf of Congresswoman Giffords. I didn’t watch that one; the fear was simply overwhelming.
Today, my partner Aric and I watched Atlantis lift off. When there was a momentary delay in the countdown due to a final mechanical check, we sat motionless, wide-eyed, terror creeping in. Then, suddenly, the clock started up again. We stared motionless at the screen, jaws clenched, until after about three minutes we were fairly certain the crew had narrowly escaped disaster this one last time. I won’t breathe easy quite yet though. Not until the Atlantis crew safely returns and the shuttle program is retired for good. I hope that, with it, the collective fear of a generation of thirty- and forty-somethings will be retired as well.