Twin tragedies from different eras share a common date today. Twenty-two years ago, the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded 73 seconds after liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It was an unusually cold morning, which struck me as I watched the innumerable replays of the explosion that day. It turned out that the cold was determined to be a factor in causing O-ring seals to leak propellant, resulting in the disaster.
This loss was the first of the Shuttle program, and stunned a nation lulled by the description of the program as a routine one in which reuse of the vehicle and the first stages of the rockets were presented as the norm. After the second disaster, with the loss of the Columbia, we came to learn that the program had actually been designed with a predicted failure rate that proved troublingly accurate.
There are many lessons to learn from all this, but one is particularly timely in my mind. Christa McCauliffe served on the mission as the first true civilian astronaut. She was selected because she was a school teacher who planned to promote the program by teaching lessons while circling the earth. Her death curtailed the civilian passenger program, but not the idea that spurred her personal mission.
Recently Jeanette Epps was removed from her scheduled tour on the International Space Station. She had planned to teach Christa McCauliffe’s lessons from the ISS in McCauliffe’s honor. No reason was given for her removal, but she would have been the first black woman on the ISS and has been outspoken in support for blacks and women in NASA.
In an earlier disaster that would have gone unsung, if not for Woody Guthrie, a plane crashed 70 years ago today in Los Gatos Canyon, not far from my grandparent’s homestead in California. Thirty-two people died, including 28 migrant farm workers from Mexico who were being deported. Wikipedia shares the discussion about the, also routine, Bracero program under which they were deported, but the underlying economic and racial themes from the story echo all too well in today’s climate.
I want not to judge too quickly, but I do think we need to reflect and consider the past in the muddle of today’s events. Whatever our values; be the law and order, compassion or economic gain and loss; our policies and actions should be well considered and not simple enough to fit on a bumper sticker.
My own opinion is that compassion and pragmatism would yield much the same policy, but for today it is enough to look back and reflect on lives cut short.