You Know Where You Were

Thirty-six years ago this morning, the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart moments after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts on board. That included New Hampshire teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space.

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of school children tuned in from their classrooms as triumph exploded into horror.

The STS-51L crewmembers are: in the back row from left to right: Mission Specialist, Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Greg Jarvis and Mission Specialist, Judy Resnik. In the front row from left to right: Pilot Mike Smith, Commander, Dick Scobee and Mission Specialist, Ron McNair.

The Challenger Disaster was one of those lifetime events about which you can always answer the question of “do you remember what you were doing?” One of those rare, but significant events like the assassination of President Kennedy, or his brother Bobby or Dr. King, the attacks of 9/11, the Virginia Tech Massacre.

You know where you were.

In January of 1986 I was between jobs, also known as unemployed. Having finished working on an unsuccessful campaign in Virginia, I was looking for my next opportunity. Two weeks later I moved to DC where I lived and worked for the next eight years. That’s another post.

I had the television on. I wasn’t watching the launch but the news broke into whatever program was on at the time. Like most of America in those pre-Internet days, I spent the rest of the day glued to the television set.

President Reagan was scheduled to deliver the State of the Union that evening. Instead he spoke to us from the Oval Office, comforting the nation as only he could do.

I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

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.”

Throughout the course of our history, Presidents have spoken eloquently at those times of our greatest need. Lincoln at Gettysburg. FDR on Pearl Harbor. George W. Bush on 9/11.

How did we get from “touching the face of God” to “you stupid son of a bitch?”

On Monday, Fox News White House correspondent Peter Doocy asked the President “Do you think inflation is a political liability going into the midterms?”

Biden muttered sarcastically, “No, it’s a great asset. More inflation. What a stupid son of a bitch.”

It’s unclear whether Biden knew that his mic was on. To his credit, he did call Doocy and apologize.

While that was the right thing to do and appreciated, given the less than impressive first year of the Biden presidency – I am being kind – a simple “Sorry, Pal” doesn’t make me feel better about the state of our union.

Sure, this wasn’t the first time that a politician was caught saying something not designed for public consumption. This is not just a Joe Biden problem.

Certainly, Donald Trump spent four years (or longer) excelling at an adversarial relationship with the media. They hated him. He hated them.

That being said, Trump did have a way of controlling the news cycle. If bad news was coming down the pike, a simple tweet or two would derail the news headlines for days. The media never seemed to catch on.

At least his distractions never led us to war.

Too soon?

Nay, my friend, pray that it is not far too late.

But that’s another post better written by someone else.

I’m not naïve, politics is hardball. It always has been. If the Founding Fathers had insisted on civility, we’d all be speaking English today.

I’m not tilting at windmills in some sort of righteous crusade.

While the Challenger disaster and Reagan’s response showed us the best of what we are as Americans, I’m certainly not advocating for another crisis just to hear some lofty rhetoric.

In today’s political climate, there’s always room for a good “gosh darn it.”

But there’s also a chance to do better.

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