Friday, January 28, 2011

On The Space Shuttle, 25 Years Later

One of the challenges of writing a book about sports that's actually a book about American culture is figuring out a way to transition from one element to the other. I'm not sure how successful I was at it, but it was surprising to me how seamlessly the pieces often seemed to fit together. For instance, most people probably don't remember that the 1985 Bears never made it to the White House to celebrate with President Reagan because a couple of days after they won the Super Bowl, the Space Shuttle Challenger imploded in mid-air. I have vivid memories of both, and I didn't think I could write a book about the era without writing at least a little bit about the Challenger disaster, an indelible event that occurred twenty-five years ago today. It was actually one of the hardest sections of the book to write, as I wanted to capture the moment without sacrificing the tone of the book--looking back on it, I have no idea if it actually worked. So here is the end of Chapter 5 of Bigger Than the Game...and the beginning of Chapter 6. 

...people stood and gawked at the big screen in Marshall Field’s, this time at the images of a space shuttle carrying seven astronauts—among them a New England schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe—launching into the sky above Cape Canaveral, Florida, and then fracturing into pieces. The city froze; the nation froze. At a restaurant in downtown Chicago, a law-school student stared lockjawed at a television set and uttered a single baleful sentence.

“I thought the entire system was infallible,” he said.


 At a news conference, Mr. Reagan . . . also blamed the January 28 loss of the Challenger and the seven astronauts aboard on “a carelessness that grew out of success.
The New York Times, June 12, 1986

On the morning of January 28, 1986, President Reagan took a meeting with the Democratic House speaker Tip O’Neill, during which he relied entirely upon partisan talking points gleaned from four-by-six cue cards prepared by his staff. It was a tactic that Reagan had used before, and even his Republican allies found it distasteful; this was Reagan at his worst, robotic and detached. He lamented the work ethic of “the fellow on welfare,” telling O’Neill, “These people don’t want to work.” O’Neill and Reagan were generally civil, even friendly, but this time, the Speaker came back at him hard, his patience worn thin. “I’m sick and tired of your attitude, Mr. President,” he said. “I thought you would have grown in five years.”

And then, a short time later, the day changed completely. On our television screens, an explosion: entrails of smoke and flame; a mosaic in the sky. On the ground, mass confusion: a shot of Christa McAuliffe’s parents, their faces drawn and pallid, the Challenger coming apart before their very eyes with their child inside, intimate grotesqueries laid bare in real time. In our schools, we watched the whole sickening show (the explosion was caused, we would later find out, by a single faulty part known as an O-ring), and this became the first shared cultural tragedy of our generation, rendered sharply so by the rare presence of live television in our classrooms, and because one of our own—a schoolteacher—was on that flight. And immediately after the explosion, the damndest thing: a disembodied voice from a NASA public-affairs officer named Steve Nesbitt, droning on in the monotone of a filmstrip narrator, blindly calling out coordinates as if the shuttle were still in flight. While confused students in Christa McAuliffe’s social-studies classroom in Concord, New Hampshire, blew party horns, the voice uttered, several seconds later, the most chilling televised words since Walter Cronkite had delivered the news of a president’s death twenty-three years earlier.

Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation.
Obviously a major malfunction.

The state of the union address scheduled for that night was postponed. How could the president speak of budgets and policy at a moment like this? Instead, he came on the air at five p.m. and gave one of the most empathetic speeches of his presidency:

And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

It was quintessential Reagan, professing optimism in the face of tragedy, and it foreshadowed what would soon become the most trying months of his presidency, a period that would call into question his promise that the era of self-doubt had subsided. This day, Tip O’Neill would later say, was Ronald Reagan at his best and Ronald Reagan at his worst, all in a matter of hours.

And for all the hyperbole that came to surround this televised funeral—for all the attempts to ascribe meaning to an essentially meaningless event—something about our view of the future, about the fundamental programming of our generation, really did seem different afterward. The Day Gen X Grew Up, one headline would describe it, twenty years later, and in a way, it was true: What we had seen on television could not be taken back. If ever there were an antidote to the celluloid propaganda of Rocky and Rambo, to the notion of American exceptionalism, here it was—the president himself would later blame NASA’s failures on a sense of carelessness bred by success. We had taken a chance, and that chance had failed, and now we understood, if we hadn’t before, that the entire system had never really been infallible.

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