Thursday, August 16, 2007

Look up at the sky.

Endeavour is above us, scholars. And on board is Barbara Morgan, an educator-astronaut. (Some people tried to call Christa McAuliffe a teachernaut, but thankfully that didn't stick.) Anyway, here are my thoughts about her flight.

When Ronald Reagan announced in 1984 the plan to send a teacher to space, he anticipated that the mission would be a reminder “of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can’t imagine a better lesson for our children or our country.” These words would come to have an unintended meaning when the space shuttle carrying that teacher, Christa McAuliffe, broke up in the sky on January 28, 1986. I was among the children McAuliffe’s mission was intended to instruct, and the Challenger disaster became one of the more memorable lessons of my youth. The lesson was about the fallibility of NASA, of politicians, of technology—the hubris of adults. When we learned the truth about the astronauts’ deaths, that they had survived the breakup of the space shuttle and may have been conscious during a two-and-a-half minute fall back to earth, the lesson became even more pointed: these institutions, these ideals, are not to be trusted.

Most of us don’t remember that Christa McAuliffe had an alternate, Barbara Morgan. She trained for a mission that only Christa McAuliffe was meant to make, then watched as Challenger disintegrated with seven of her friends aboard. She moved her family to Houston to await assignment to another mission, then watched as Columbia, the shuttle she was meant to fly on next, disintegrated during re-entry in 2003. After waiting for a total of 22 years, Barbara Morgan will finally get to fly on or after August 8. And in many ways, her story encapsulates America’s ambivalence about spaceflight even better than Christa McAuliffe’s does.

For those of us who were changed by watching the destruction of Challenger, watching Barbara Morgan’s flight is going to feel strange. In a sense, it will mark a final end to the Challenger tragedy, tie up a loose end. To finally get to see a teacher fly will make us feel as though a promise made to us as children has finally been fulfilled. Christa’s message was that the fruits of American ingenuity should be open to anyone, not just “Right-Stuff”-era Apollo supermen. When I think of Barbara’s flight, I can’t help but reflect that surely this is what Christa McAuliffe and her crewmates would have wanted to see.

Yet watching this launch will remind us of how long it’s been and what has happened since. The morning of that launch for which Barbara served as an alternate, I was a thirteen-year-old eighth-grader. Now I am a thirty-four-year-old mother. Challenger has become part of a set of eighties signifiers that have ossified with age, like legwarmers, sticker collections, and hair metal. It’s disconcerting to think that the space transport NASA is using to assemble its International Space Station is also old enough to invoke kitschy nostalgia. The shuttle was designed in the seventies and first launched in 1981, so when we see a launch now, are we to be impressed with the technological achievement it still represents? (After all, no better spacecraft has been build since). Or are we to be impressed that machines older than our cars are still running at all?

Also, of course, this flight takes us back to the space shuttle disaster—both disasters, actually—and to our ambivalence about sending everyday people into space. Not to mention our ambivalence about NASA, our disappointment when their astronauts, still idolized as the best of the best, are caught drinking before flights or chasing each other across the country in bizarre love triangles.

When questioned about the disasters that have gone before, Barbara Morgan gives this answer: she wants her perseverance to be a lesson to her students. Children are watching what adults do when something goes wrong, she says, and it’s important that they see us investigate, pick up the pieces, fix the problem, and keep on flying. This is a nicely crafted sound bite, of course, in the way it makes a virtue of the spotted past, yet there is truth to it. There aren’t many things that can still capture children’s enthusiasm the way spaceflight can. NASA made a mistake in 1986, and again in 2003, and if they are to keep our respect, and our tax dollars, it should be by finding some redemption in what has gone before rather than in sweeping it under the rug. And as odd as it feels to quote Ronald Reagan: I can’t imagine a better lesson for our children or our country.

...Of course, now we find ourselves face again with the question of why NASA can't stop their insulation foam from scratching up their tiles. More on this at a later date.

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