Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger disaster was not my generation's Kennedy assassination

I've always thought that the effort to portray the Challenger disaster as my generation's Kennedy assassination was a little weak. The killing of a sitting president is much bigger event than an accidental destruction of a space shuttle just after it launched.

I'm a fan of space travel, but the bottom line is by 1986 space launches just weren't seen as that important. We had been to the moon and then discovered that we weren't willing to pony up the vast sums of money it would take to do anything interesting there. So we stopped going. The next generation of launches, where astronauts circles the Earth and did some experiments just didn't have the drama of the earlier efforts. The doomed Challenger mission itself is a testament to NASA's struggle to keep its launches relevant. The mission included Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher, who was on the crew just to allow the space agency to hype the first teacher in space angle and pump up the public's waning interest in the program.

Even on the day of the Challenger disaster, people were already comparing it to the Kennedy assassination, and everyone was telling me that I would always remember where I was when I learned that it happened. That part was true. I do remember. I saw the explosion on a TV in the library of my school (I don't remember whether I saw the explosion live, or a later repeat from a newscast). But I wonder if I would have remembered if all the grown ups hadn't spent the whole day telling me that was a day I would always remember.

I wasn't alive for the Kennedy assassination. But I can only imagine how that really was an earth shattering event. The president was not some marginal thing that you didn't think about very much, like Shuttle launches were in the mid-1980s. When you learn about something like that you know the world is about to change. I never thought the world would change very much when I saw the Challenger disaster. It was definitely a horrible tragedy, but I had lived the news of tragedies that killed a lot more people than the 7 on board the shuttle.

9/11 was possibly an event on the scale of the Kennedy assassination. Maybe it was even bigger, or maybe it wasn't quite as big. I'm not sure how to measure those things, but at least it was in the same league. The Challenger disaster just wasn't.