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Sun, Jan 29, 2006

Where Were You Twenty Years Ago?

Challenger Seven Remembered By A Grateful Nation

By ANN Senior Correspondent Kevin R.C. "Hognose" O'Brien

Where were you twenty years ago Saturday, at 11:39 AM Eastern Standard Time?

I was in an Army barracks in Augsburg, Germany, with two or three friends. We had been on duty overnight and we were having a couple of beers and watching the TV. Now, you could have a TV that got American Forces TV or one that got German TV stations. I had a German TV but I was watching my buddy's larger, shinier, color American set.

We were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.

Most Americans weren't. By 1986 the orbiters had been flying for five years and the media had moved on. Shuttle launches were routine, even boring. TV networks sent crews but only used the footage on a slow news day.

But for us, expatriates and, if I may say so, patriots, I'll never forget what I saw that day, and I'll never forget the different ways one of our number tried to find some hope in the catastrophic loss of the orbiter... "maybe someone survived," this person said, and kept trying to imagine a way that someone might have done.

But there was no hope for the crew of seven.

Saturday at 11:39 a.m. EST was the 20th anniversary of the STS-51L Challenger disaster. It has become one of those epochal events like Pearl Harbor, the assassination of Kennedy, and 9/11: all of us alive then remember where we were and what we were doing.

The Challenger was the first loss of life in American space flight (three astronauts had died in a test in 1967, and others in conventional aircraft). Had it happened ten years earlier, it might have brought about a withdrawal from space flight. Instead, President Reagan gave a eulogy that made us want to recommit to space flight.

"We come together today to mourn the loss of seven brave Americans, to share the grief we all feel and, perhaps in that sharing, to find the strength to bear our sorrow and the courage to look for the seeds of hope," Reagan said. Reagan commented on each of the seven individuals, always returning to the theme that their sacrifice would be validated only by staying in space.

"We remember Ronald McNair, who said that he learned perseverance in the cotton fields of South Carolina. His dream was to live aboard the Space Station, performing experiments and playing his saxophone in the weightlessness of space; Ron, we will miss your saxophone and we will build your Space Station."

"We will build your space station," Reagan promised the ghost of McNair, a promise that is only partially fulfilled, twenty years on. We've had other setbacks; another orbiter lost to a change in foam insulation; a third nearly lost because everything was questioned except the change to the "environmentally-safe" but structurally unsafe foam.

President Reagan made this eulogy on January 31, 1986. Unlike the disaster itself, I don't recall watching the eulogy. But reading it today, one is struck both by the power of the speech -- he wasn't called The Great Communicator for nothing -- and by the applicability of its sentiments to today.

"Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on immense reservoirs of courage, character and fortitude that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the Space Shuttle Challenger."

"Dick Scobee knew that every launching of a Space Shuttle is a technological miracle. And he said, if something ever does go wrong, I hope that doesn't mean the end to the Space Shuttle program. Every family member I talked to asked specifically that we continue the program, that that is what their departed loved one would want above all else. We will not disappoint them."

"Today, we promise Dick Scobee and his crew that their dream lives on; that the future they worked so hard to build will become reality...."

"Man will continue his conquest of space. To reach out for new goals and ever greater achievements -- that is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes."

This week, we remember the Challenger seven: Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Scobee, Smith. We also commemorate the Apollo 1 fire victims, who died 39 years ago on Jan. 27, 1967: Chafee, Grissom and White (above). Next week, it's time to remember the seven lost in Columbia on Feb 1, 2003: Anderson, Brown, Chawla, Clark, Husband, McCool and Ramon.

Reagan, the conservative champion of free enterprise, would probably be delighted to see startup businesses and visionary entrepreneurs leading the way into space. But as we move on and have new adventures, new heroes, and yes -- new martyrs, we occasionally ought to look back over our shoulders at those who gave all of their tomorrows for the Tomorrow we have today.

"We will never forget you," Reagan promised. Let us keep his pledge.

FMI: www.challenger.org

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