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Slip the Surly Bonds of Earth

Years -- decades -- ago, when I was a lad, folks like my mom, grandma and people their age would sometimes talk about where they were when past events occurred. The JFK assassination is the one I heard about most. The adults would get a misty, far-away look in their eyes, summoning their memories of that terrible day. These particular scenarios come flooding back today because it is the 30th anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and now I am one of the older people getting that misty, far-away look in their eyes.

January 28th, 1986 was a Tuesday. A quick Internet search helps lock that down. Most everything else I remember without assistance. I was in fourth grade, Mrs. Keller's class. Except Mrs. Keller wasn't there that day. We had a substitute. I can't remember her name, and that's a shame as she came across as quite a nice person. Young(ish), slightly stout, with hair that could've been styled with a bit more flourish, I remember her interrupting the normal lesson plan with a pained expression creeping across her face.

"I have something to tell you," said the substitute. "It's not good news." She was fully utilizing the pregnant pause, sincerely so. She continued on with how many of us knew that this morning had been the scheduled lift-off of the space shuttle Challenger, with the first U.S. teacher to take part in a shuttle flight on board, Christa McAuliffe. We were tentative in our acknowledgement, apprehensive at what was to come, given the somber mood of our herald.

The space shuttle program had been launching astronauts into multi-day Earth orbit since 1981. There had been two dozen such flights by the time that January day in 1986 rolled around. To be honest, they had become so common place that it was no longer an event for one to launch. Besides, as kids, we had other things to grab our attention such as Star Wars, TransformersG.I. Joe and sundry other important kid stuff. The despondent figure of our substitute teacher standing before us brought us back to the real world of space exploration and furthering the growth of human kind.

"The Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off this morning," continued the teacher. "Everyone on board was killed, including teacher Christa McAuliffe."

There was the rub, the double-whammy. Not only had there been a national event, a tragedy, but the realization began to insinuate itself within my head that there was a special connection we all shared that had been snuffed aborning in that shuttle craft. A teacher, a 'regular person' like the one standing in front of us, like the ones who had been shepherding us since kindergarten, was now dead in what was supposed to be a crowning achievement in human space exploration and education. Some of us bowed our heads in thought, and shock.

That night, President Reagan addressed the nation to acknowledge and reflect upon what had transpired that day. Despite the critical eye I give his presidency as an adult, it is true that there is still a part of me that has a warm admiration for our 40th president. Call it the effect of youth. There he so often was, the person I knew as the leader of our country, a comforting, grandfatherly presence on our TV screens, providing information and reassurance to the nation. I wish I could still see things so purely as I did then. As Reagan finished that night, the following words he spoke are forever emblazoned in my mind:

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to touch the face of God."

Thus, a major, national -- world -- event had occurred, perhaps the first one of my life. It was the first reminder to not always take things for granted, that people can and do die, that some are willing to risk their lives to further the progress of humanity. And that our teachers, the men and women who stood before us every day, providing education, discipline, insight and tenderness, were some of those amazing people. Thirty years on, I know these things by rote, but there's nothing like learning them for the first time.


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