Friday, May 3, 2013

Do You Remember?

Emma's Math class has one last big project for the year:  "Dream Vacation".  It's a really cool premise.  Each student is given a $10,000 budget and has to plan a dream vacation, complete with food, lodging, fuel, gas, air fare, whatever...and make a presentation on it.  They've already completed "Dream Job" and "Dream House".  It gives the kids a chance to APPLY math, which I think is awesome.  Math can be such a dry topic if you don't see the application side, and even the application side can be pretty stiff if it's not a "fun" application.

So we were eating popcorn, watching "The Voice" (or something) and asking Emma, "Where do you want to go on your dream vacation?"

Tropical Island?  No...Hurricanes
Cruise?  No...shipwreck
Hawaii?  Are you kidding?  You want a volcano to blow you up?
Greece?  Tsunami.  (I pointed out that Tsunamis don't really hit Greece, but she wasn't having any of it)

Finally, Leslie said, "Emma, you're funny.  You're so nervous about all these vacations because you're afraid something bad will happen."

Emma asked where I wanted to go.

"The moon," I said.

She immediately agreed.  This of course made us laugh because the reason she didn't want to get on a cruise ship, essentially, is that in the movie Chipwrecked, Alvin and the Chipmunks accidentally fly off the ship on a borrowed kite and land on an island, separated from Dave, their bumbling caregiver.  This sort of separation really makes her anxious.

"You're afraid to get on a boat, but you'd get in a rocket?" I asked incredulously.

"Yeah, cause what could go wrong."

Leslie said, "Oh boy, we should watch Apollo 13 with you sometime."

"Or the shuttle," I added.

The shuttle.  I hadn't thought about it in SO.  LONG.  And even saying it off the cuff I wasn't really THINKING about it.

Emma didn't know what we were talking about.  DIDN'T KNOW. 

And so we told her.  We told her in the way that kids today will tell their parents in 20 years about the Boston Marathon or 9-11.  Or how our parents might have told us about the Kennedy assassination.

Leslie talked about being in school, and I got in story teller mode and tried to really make it interesting for her; I tried to really get her in the moment.  It really is something important to revisit.

My version of the story was essentially this:

"We were in study hall.  We had a really small school, and the cafeteria had a TV that got network broadcasts on it.  Everyone came to the cafeteria to watch."

This part confused Emma a little, so I explained. 

"This shuttle lunch was really a big deal.  There had already been a dozen or more launches, but they'd done this nationwide search...they'd trained a teacher to go into space.  The idea was she was going to go up and experience it, and when she came back, she was going to think of all sorts of new ways to get kids interested in learning about space, and develop neat new ways to teach it to them." 

When I said the part about the teacher, Emma nodded understanding, like, "yeah, okay, I get why it was such a big deal in school."

"She wasn't an astronaut or anything, so they had to take a really long time to train her to BE an astronaut and get her in shape for the flight.  This was a huge deal for schools, thousands of teachers applied and she was the one picked."

Leslie remembered how everyone thought she was so pretty.  I remembered that too.  She was just exactly "The Girl Next Door".  Sort of pretty in an honest, small-town kind of way, if that makes sense.

"And the shuttle went up, and we watched it, and maybe a minute or so blew up."

And Emma looked confused and so I explained.  She asked about the crew.  I said, "They were all gone.  All of them died."

I got out the iPad and searched Youtube for "Challenger Explosion".  There was footage from CNN.  I started the video and Emma sat next to me and we watched.  They counted down, the engines ignited, it lifted off.  The cameras stayed with the shuttle and the image got hazier as the zoom on the cameras tried to keep up while the Challenger surged into the distance.  It was three miles into its flight in less than a minute. 

Even though I knew it was going to happen any second, when it blew up my breath sort of caught involuntarily and I felt myself get a little misty all over again at this explosion that happened almost 30 years ago and these people long since dead.

We watched in silence as the rocket spun in wide loops away from the main explosion, circling and quartering across the sky.

"Where are the people?" she asked.

"They're gone.  They blew up with the shuttle."

"Oh." she said, in a small voice, although she didn't sound upset, "What happened?"

"It was really cold that morning," I said, "And they'd already delayed the flight a bunch of times.  And they really wanted it to take off, but the gaskets" (I said gaskets but explained about o-rings later) " ...the seals that separated the flame from the rocket fuel got colder than they should have and got brittle and cracked and let the flame hit the fuel."  I tried to explain about gasoline and fire...and how rocket fuel is like gasoline, but way way MORE.  (Then I told her never to light gasoline on fire...seriously, what the fuck is wrong with my parenting these days)

"AND..." I said to her, "AND, and engineer tried to tell them not to launch.  He told them that the o-rings had never been tested at temperatures as cold as the ones they had the day of the launch and they FIRED him." 

I looked this up later, and found I was sort of wrong.  Roger Boisjoly warned them of the danger and was overruled.  He wasn't fired, but he was shunned at work, and ultimately resigned to become a speaker for workplace ethics.  He was a pretty big deal when I was going to college, the example that Engineering professors used when discussing doing "The Right Thing".  And I think everyone knew that the term Whistleblower was previously a pejorative one...but I think that Roger Boisjoly made it into something else.  I'd be curious about other engineers' takes on this.  It was certainly what I felt.  

How DARE they value launch over safety.  How DARE they value loss of face over loss of life. 

But I digress...

And she looked stunned at this.  "Why?"

I explained what had happened.  I explained about politics and public relations (in a nutshell) and how they thought he was being TOO careful and TOO focused on the details and that everything was going to be fine.  And how he had made them all look so bad.  SO bad.

It brought up a lot of memories for me.  In the moment it was stunned disbelief.

Anway, when all this came up, I was really feeling it, and wanted to share it, and wonder if any of you ever think about it, I mean REALLY think about it, the way we've all thought about 9/11 or Columbine or Newtown or this newest Boston Marathon Bombing.  Because I think it's worth thinking about. 


  1. I remember this. I was in third grade and we were all crammed into our multipurpose room with a tiny little tv. But even the kids in the back could see the explosion. The room went completely quiet. All those kids, and no noise at all.

    1. Back then there was no counselor available to assist in the grief process. At least not in MY school

  2. It was a big deal to miss class to watch this, it was projected on the big screen in the auditorium. 800 kids in dead silence. After the explosion, they just hurried us back to our classrooms. I honestly don't remember what class that was. I just remember how happy and proud the teacher-astronaut looked just before the launch. Some events are etched on the collective memory, ask anyone who was old enough to remember and they have a story.

    1. I watched a bit of an interview with the teacher who was picked as "runner-up". It was very interesting.

  3. I remember this happening vividly. I don't know that I thought about the aftermath so much like you did though. But you're right. Loss of face over loss of life? Unconscionable.

    1. Yeah, this was a big focus during the first year "Engineering Ethics" courses we took

  4. Oh, I remember this so clearly: I was in 6th grade social studies with Mr. Battestelli and he rolled the TV in on a cart. We all watched it happen live. I do think of this often because I am a teacher, and never, ever would we risk watching something live like that. When 9/11 happened, the teachers all knew what was going on, but we were forbidden to breathe a word for fear the kids might become aware and... who knows what they were afraid the kids would do. I was, and still am, just so very, very saddened by it.

    1. I like Mr. Battestelli's name. It reminds me of Battlestar Galactic. You're absolutely right...rolling in the TV on a cart. SO 80's.

  5. I was an ed tech in a special ed self-contained classroom at that time. We were watching it on TV. It was horrific to see in real time with those kids and try to explain what happened. That is old hat to people now - seeing things in real time.

    1. God! I can't imagine. You're right. It's all real time. With counselors standing by.

  6. Great post
    You are so right with group-think

  7. Jesus, I started to cry halfway through this post. Yeah, powerful stuff.

    1. yeah, it struck me harder than I expected too.

  8. I teach engineering to college students and we do this case study each year when we discuss ethics. I have the students watch the CNN video (because most of them were not even alive at the time!); but it's always difficult for me not to tear up standing at the front of the classroom.

  9. That was a powerful memory for me too, Jim. I can picture it like it was yesterday, but rarely think about it. I wonder if there will ever be another Christa McAuliffe?

  10. Funny, I just found your blog tonight for the first time. Last week I showed the same video to my 10 year old. We had a huge discussion about many things. And I cried.

  11. Was working on Singer Island (south Florida) at the time. One of my co-workers stopped atop the Singer Island Bridge (a 65' high fixed bridge) to watch the liftoff...being just a few hours south of Cape Canaveral/Cape Kennedy, many of the launches are visible here depending on the skies. He flew into the office and stunned us with "the Space Shuttle just blew up." I remember it so vividly, it's hard to realize it was 27 years ago. At the time I thought he was making a bad joke and could not believe it was true. Years later I felt the same when someone called my desk and said a plane just flew into the World Trade Center... :(

    1. I can see that. I just thought the person who told me about the planes was ill-informed.