Monday, January 30, 2006

JB's reflections on the Challenger disaster got me thinking about the where-were-you question, for that and other situations.

I was in a 9th grade English class being led at that particular moment by the student teacher. The "main" teacher—Miss Henning, an outright shrew by all accounts—had been watching the launch on a tv in a nearby science class, and she came back into the room looking very grave.

She gave us the news, and a tv was promptly wheeled in so that we could get the live scoop. CNN had already been in existence for more than five years, but either it wasn't available locally, or the school or teacher chose to opt for ABC instead. I don't recall who the commentator was, nor do I remember much of the commentary, but I can still see the eerie shot of the main cloud and the two suddenly unfettered rockets snaking around the otherwise blue sky. This was before the advent of 24-hour saturation news coverage, but even then we were treated to endless loops of the liftoff, the explosion, and a side-view from one of the chase planes that seemed to show something seriously wrong with the booster from very early in the flight.

Immediately my class embraced the grade-school speculations about some diabolical plot to destroy the shuttle, compounded the the days-later rumor that a Soviet fishing trawler—anchored a few miles off the coast for every other shuttle launch—wasn't there that day.

That morning we learned that Miss Henning had been on the shortlist of final candidates for the seat ultimately occupied by Christy McAuliffe.

I don't remember Reagan's speech at all, partly because this was long before I had any political consciousness. I wasn't yet in the habit of thinking about things in terms of the National Consciousness, either.

But I've always been a big fan of science and space, so I'd seen either the launch or landing of most previous shuttle missions. In the course of my layman's interest, I came upon the then-hypothetical statistic that any given shuttle launch had a 1 in 70 chance of exploding. I don't remember which number the Challenger was, exactly, but I know that they'd passed 70 missions without major incident, so it may be that their number was up. So it goes.

I also heard, a few days later, that polls indicated that some huge fraction of the population would jump at the chance to ride aboard the shuttle, even the next day. What do we make of that?

In my lifetime there have probably been three national "where were you when" moments. The other two were Reagan's near-assassination and, of course, September 11th. JB was right to note that the Columbia explosion didn't instill nearly the same depth of national horror as the Challenger; it was sad, but it wasn't new. But those other three events sure "changed everything," much as Kennedy's assassination had done seven years before I was born.

As for Reagan, I don't really remember the shooting, because at that point I was in 4th grade and barely thought about such things. I recall the general event, and I can still picture the news footage showing the handcuffs swinging back and forth on that one guy's pocket as they tackled Hinkley, but I don't remember exactly where I was.

On September 11, I had taken a day off from work and was productively watching X-Men on DVD that morning, when my wife called with the news. So it goes.

As a culture, we've been generally shielded from the daily horrors familiar to other nations, such as suicide bombings, missile strikes on weddings and funerals, and the ubiquitous silt of depleted uranium. The tragedies that do occur are fed to us in carefully correographed bulletins, so that our fears and feelings are guided to a result scripted before we even read the first headline. We'll authorize just about any crazy legislative action, as long as it makes us feel safe to listen to our Ipods and watch the next American Idol.

It's striking that every event that "changes everything" involves waking us from our national complacency, rather than ushering in a bold era of societal enlightenment. "Where were you when society as a whole realized that everyone deserves a living wage?" That would be a moment worth remembering.

Did the Challenger "change everything" for America? We saw that space exploration was dangerous, but we knew that already. Maybe we learned that hugely complex machinery can sometimes fail spectacularly, but we knew that already, too.

Maybe, as JB notes, the explosion heralded the beginning of the slide into privatized, low-bidder incompetence. If so, then we can thank a faulty O-ring for Haliburton, HMOs, Dubya's hell-spawned Iraqi war machine. So it goes.

Everything changes everything.

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