2011-07-13

The Sanctity of Space

I was a new music teacher when Nasa announced its Teacher in Space Project. If you were a teacher, an American citizen, in good health and within a certain age range, you could apply for a seat on a shuttle flight. As a child I had followed every minute of the Apollo moon missions. I had seen every Saturn V leave the pad. Now, as an adult, I had a real shot at being an astronaut. Did I want in? You bet.

The odds of getting the gig were of course long. Over 11,000 people applied nationwide (though I expected a number far higher). Science teachers would be preferred, and I was on the young side of the curve. It came as no surprise when the letter from Nasa came saying that I was out, but that the agency invited me to watch the announcement of the winner on television.

The agency, I saw at once, had made an outstanding choice. The winner was enthusiastic. She had a gift for describing difficult science concepts in clear, engaging ways. She would be terrific on a flight. I liked her. But now came a feeling that surprised me. This hurt. With the application process behind me, I no longer had to think about doing and saying the right things. Now I could just feel what I felt. What I felt was wretched. I had wanted this. Now it was lost forever. Tomorrow's technology would not arrive fast enough to help. A door had slammed. I would never fly in space.

The winner went with my best wishes for success. But I resolved to avoid all news about the flight until it was over. It was her show, not mine, and I didn't have to watch it. I was a musician. Musicians have their own projects and missions and I would see to those now. Music is how I fly.
I was in graduate school when the newspaper arrived one morning with news of the impending launch. A photo of the winning teacher appeared on the front page. She was wearing a flight suit and walking out to the pad with the rest of the crew. The launch was scheduled for later that morning. The story above the fold was the State of the Union address, scheduled for evening broadcast. I left the paper on the table--State of the Union side up--and prepared to step out the door.

The phone rang. A musician friend told me to turn on my television.

The rest is a memory I share with millions. We watched in horror as the video of the Challenger launch was replayed again and again. Each time we hoped that somehow this viewing would be different--that this time nothing would go wrong, this time the ship would climb until it reached orbit. But the video always ended the same way.
STS-51-L is the shuttle mission that will always stand out for me. It's the only space flight I ever had a chance to be on, the only flight I ever tried to ignore. It's the flight that carried the astronaut I envied, then mourned, more than any other.

A leap into the unknown is exactly that. No one knows what will happen. But we can all write down this: Christa McAuliffe made the leap when she saw the chance. She seized the day.

Would I apply again if the chance came around?

You bet.

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