I remember I was excited to go to school that morning. The first teacher was going to be launched into space and our class was going to watch the tape of the launch (VCRs were all the rage back then). I remember going by the classroom during morning recess just to see if maybe I could catch a glimpse of the footage before the entire class, and that was when I saw my teacher crying. She told me about how there was an accident, and the astronauts didn’t make it into space.
It was later at home when it was all over the news that I saw the Challenger shuttle explosion footage that is so infamous now. The failed launch became the face of NASA for a long time as the investigation into why the shuttle exploded after take off dominated the headlines. However, as a nation we healed, like we always do. It wasn’t the first tragedy that NASA had suffered in its tenure, and it unfortunately wouldn’t be the last. It’s the one I remember as a child, and the benchmark for my “Where were you when…”
However, it is not how I remember the shuttle program. When I think about it, I think about it fondly, and I like to remember the history making milestones that the program gave us. Like the first American woman in space, Dr. Sally Ride, who joined NASA in 1977, and was a part of two successful missions on the space shuttle Challenger. Also the first Black American woman in space, Dr. Mae Jemison, who flew into space on Endeavour. Both women went on to inspire many other little girls by showing that being a female astronaut was an attainable goal, and not just a pipe dream.
We are not just saying goodbye to the shuttle program, but we are starting to look forward again, and beyond. We haven’t had a vehicle able to transport Americans to the moon since the retiring of the Apollo space program in 1972. The retiring of the shuttle program means we are beginning to dream again, and dream big. We are not just stopping at the moon this time. Plans are to build a permanent base there, and then human exploration of Mars. For years deep space exploration has been the stuff of sci-fi, and now we are finally on the right track again to make it a reality.
Mission to Mars won’t be just a lame sci-fi flick anymore. I’ll be able to add it to my “Where were you when…” collection, and hopefully share the experience of watching a Mars landing on TV with my daughter, like my mother shares the 1963 lunar landing with her mother.