Lessons From Space
John Carr Walker
I prized my glossy pictures of the space program. The space shuttle Columbia strapped to rockets and propped vertical on the launch pad. Atlantis, floating in space, bay doors open, long robot arm bent at the elbow. Enterprise riding piggyback on a 747 with a fighter escort of F-15 Eagles. I would have been one of those kids bound for space camp—for space—if I’d been more of a risk-taker.
January 28th, 1986. When I awoke that morning it seemed there was nothing outside but the vacuum of space. A canvas neither white nor gray stood soft yet impenetrable between the house and vineyards, tule fog so dense that it obscured the eaves extending above my bedroom window.
I ate my breakfast on a television tray and watched Channel 18, our PBS affiliate, the list of schools on foggy day schedules that scrolled along the bottom of the screen, waiting. Because our house was only a few miles from school, my mother acted as a foggy day spotter: if she couldn't see a painted stake planted in the vineyard when standing at the kitchen sink, she'd phone my principal to report low visibility, and if he received enough reports, he'd delay the start of school. Fifteen, twenty foggy day schedules might be called a year. And there it was, on screen: Alvina Elementary, Plan C, which meant a two-hour delayed start, busses cancelled.
I went downstairs to our finished basement—suspension ceiling, flickering fluorescent lights, indestructible red carpet—and dumped out my Legos in front of the old television set. Orange light shone through the vents in the back, but the screen needed a little time to warm up. I knelt on my nine-year-old indestructible knees and started building. Spaceships, of course. Cylindrical rockets with flaring boosters. Orbiters with triangular wings and see-through blisters for cockpits, little astronauts inside. As the picture formed on television I could see the shuttle Challenger standing on the launchpad with its rockets and fuel tank. The countdown continued in one corner of the screen, the camera trained on the clock trembling now and again. So long as there were no aborted launches, I'd see lift off before I had to leave for school, and the bright blue weather in Florida looked perfect, in vivid contrast to the San Joaquin Valley’s gray fog.
When the countdown reached thirty seconds I put my Legos down to give the space shuttle my full attention. Ten seconds. The rockets breathed fire through the plumes of white smoke. Three, two, one. Lift off, we have lift off, said that voice, the narrator of my fantasies. Ravens took flight in the background. The shuttle rolled to its back as it climbed.
Then Challenger broke apart.
The fog was burning off when my mother took me to school. The grass of the play fields looked more gold than green in the damp, filtered sunlight. Before sending me through the wire gates she told me not to think about the explosion. But my classmates and I spoke of nothing else, electrified with unanswered questions, even the girls. For months we'd been reading articles about Christa McAuliffe, her background and teaching experience and family, about all we could expect to learn from her. The pictures on the handouts were glossy black from overexposure in the Xerox machine, but I'd saved them all in a special folder in my desk. The message that anything was possible had never come across stronger than in the lead up to the Challenger’s launch.
There was another stack of Xeroxed pages on the corner of the teacher’s desk, but she didn't hand them out. We did reading groups. We did math. Our teacher seemed to be avoiding our eyes. Finally I raised my hand. What about the space lessons? I asked.
Not today, she said. It's time for history.
I suppose none of us knew how to deal with such a sudden end—to precisely what, I didn’t yet know.
Here’s the picture of seven astronauts in blue flight suits, holding their helmets with black visors. Francis R. Scobee, Commander; Michael J. Smith, Pilot; Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist; Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist; Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist; Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist; Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher. The fact Christa McAuliffe was a teacher seemed to me beside the point. Almost anybody could be a teacher, I thought. My mother had been a teacher before she was my mother. She came from a long line of teachers. Everyday I saw teachers doing their earthbound best. Of course I'd been looking forward to the lessons Mrs. McAuliffe would broadcast from the shuttle, but not because she was a teacher—because she was an astronaut.
For days I watch shuttle debris being salvaged from the ocean. A delta of scorched wing, the cone of a thrust nozzle, and the shell of cockpit, flexing like a swim cap as it’s pulled from the water. Weeks later the official report concludes NASA knew about the fault in the O-ring seals in the solid rocket booster that caused the explosion but ignored the danger, blaming the space program’s culture of “Go Fever”--the single-minded pursuit of a plan that blinds you to its risks.
I take apart and rebuild my Lego spaceships, waiting for next shuttle launch, but no more launches are ever televised. I finally understand the lesson: no one leaves. I’ll become a teacher instead.
About the Author: John Carr Walker’s critically acclaimed story collection, Repairable Men (Sunnyoutside 2014), was a Small Press Distribution Best of the Press pick and a featured title on Late Night Library’s Debut podcast. His writing has appeared in Prick of the Spindle, Prime Number, Eclectica, Nailed, and other journals. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, was a Fishtrap Fellow in 2012, and is the founder and editor of Trachodon. A native of the San Joaquin Valley and former high school English teacher, he now lives and writes full-time in Saint Helens, Oregon.