Thursday, February 4, 2010


As it got dark on January 28th, 1986, I had spent the day collecting soil and water samples at the Cascade Head Experimental Forest in the course of my student job for OSU's Forest Soils department. We had left town about seven AM, after a quick stop at a local bakery to pick up a warm cinnamon bun. The weather had been fairly crappy, but not awful, which was an improvement over most of the midwinter work at that site. We had stopped at the Otis Cafe (which, while not exactly "world famous," has had an awful lot of positive reviews) and had a hearty bowl of hot soup and a roll. This was our typical reward to ourselves for successfully completing 6-7 hours of working out the rain and cold mud. An hour and a half with the van heaters on high as we drove back to Corvallis, the unbelievable winter verdure of Oregon's coast range forests, a belly full of warm food, and the satisfaction of a job well done, combined to set my spirits pretty high.

I got home about five, and walked in the door smiling, imagining a nice warm shower.

One of my house mates, with a very grim expression on his face, growled "What the fuck are you so happy about?" Uh, excuse me? Is there some reason I shouldn't be happy?

"Didn't you hear?"

"Hear what?"

"Challenger blew up."

Now in honesty, to my perceptions, the shuttle launches had become fairly routine, and I'm not sure, 24 years and a few days later, whether I was even aware the shuttle was launching that morning. I would have known that it was going up soon, and maybe I did know, at the back of my mind, that I was missing a launch. I've never become tired of watching these enormous machines rise into the sky.

Whatever the case, I was stunned, and I think it was about eleven before I finally got that shower. It was much more stunning and traumatic to me than the Columbia disaster because it was the first time it occurred to me that these vehicles were prone to catastrophic failure. In the past couple of decades I've also become much more alert, cynical, thick-skinned, and dismissive toward the media's obsession with what has been so accurately described as "disaster porn."

Now from The Guardian comes word of the discovery and release of the only known amateur video of the event.

It still moves me, all these years later. I lost a piece of my child-like innocence that day. That's how you become an adult: you don't even realize what's happening except in the harsh light of 20-20 hindsight. And somehow, it seems like it might be even more painful from that perspective than it is even as it's happening.

Followup, 6:59 PM: I had forgotten that was the flight with Christa McAuliffe; I was certainly aware of the launch. I remember the excitement of having a regular civialian, and a teacher at that, headed into space. Such a loss.

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