THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Human Heart

by Bowen Chen

Illustration by Gemma Brand-Wolf

published April 17, 2020


 

Jan 28, 1986, 11:38 AM

 

Hundreds of students have gathered in the Concord High School auditorium, eyes glued to the television placed on a black plastic rolling cart. Conversations are shushed as teenagers and faculty alike strain their ears, trying to catch bits and pieces of the static-filled broadcast. The machine is dialed to a CNN broadcast, and they chant in tune with the flight operator from Kennedy Space Station. Ten, Nine, Eight…

This is no ordinary space mission. The space shuttle that has just launched carries one of their own, whom they call Mrs. McAuliffe, who only a year and a half prior was standing in the classroom, teaching them about the Battle of Gettysburg, grading their essays on the Cold War. To the students, she will always be a teacher of firsts, but now they must share her with the nation as the first teacher to venture into space. As the shuttle launches, the students erupt into cheers, unable to contain their excitement, knowing they stand witness to a pivotal moment in history.

At Cape Canaveral on the Florida coast, what was once a barren strip of sand and scrub has long been used as NASA’s standing base of operations for its space exploration program. Having sent the world's second man into space one month after Russia claimed the golden title, NASA, nearly 25 years later, prepared to launch its 25th space mission: a crew of seven aboard the space shuttle Challenger, embarking on its 10th voyage into the unknown.    

 

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Barbara Morgan stands atop a viewing platform several miles from the launch site and watches. Hidden somewhere deep in the belly of the beast, behind hundreds of layers of LI-900 silica designed to withstand temperatures of up to 1,260 degrees Celsius, her fellow teacher and astronaut trainee will in moments be propelled into the sky at 18,000 miles per hour. For the past year and a half, they have both undergone the same training, learning to fly T-38s and do barrel rolls and lazy eights, performing underwater stimulations in full gear weighing close to 300 lbs. In some buried corner of her heart she wishes that she was the one aboard Challenger, the nation’s eyes watching her, but tells herself regardless of whether or not she makes it to space, the journey has already brought her so many experiences that she can’t wait to share back in McCall with her students and family.

It seemed only yesterday that she was interviewing for NASA’s Teacher in Space Program (TISP). When president Ronald Reagan had broadcasted plans for TISP on national television, Barbara, along with many other teachers across the nation, jumped out of her seat and exclaimed, “That’s a great idea!” After receiving news that she had made it to the semifinal round, she spent many nights drafting plans and rehearsing what she would say during her interview. She looked in the mirror and maintained eye contact, “The thing I want everyone to remember is, I’m not going to be the only private citizen in space, I’m planning on taking the whole country with me.” Her reflection nodded and flashed a coy grin. Perfect.

Christa sat in the cockpit of Challenger. Despite over a year of training, she still felt like she was not fully prepared for what was about to happen. Going through the ‘vomit comet,’—a small appetizer of weightless euphoria quickly followed by intense nausea experienced during the KC-135’s nosedive—was one thing, but a full-fledged launch was a whole different animal. The press that led up to the mission had propelled Christa into national stardom. The other day, when a waitress asked for her autograph, it reminded Christa of writing a hall pass for her students during their free period. Judith, the mission specialist, checks the external tank ullage pressure, then the engine supply helium pressure, “right engine helium tank is a bit low.” She thinks about her oldest, Scott, and her youngest, Caroline, and wishes that she spent more time with them this past year. It gives her strength knowing that they are watching her, hundreds of miles away, along with the rest of the nation. When they came to tour the space station and met the astronauts, Caroline had told her she liked the cafeteria’s tuna fish sandwiches, while Scott liked the batting cages down the road. She closes her eyes and silently vows to make her daughter a tuna fish sandwich first thing when she returns to Concord. The NASA flight control countdown is reaching its end and she hears Judith say, “Aaalll right,” followed by Mike, the pilot, “Here we go.” She braced herself as the air rushed towards her, facing the mouth of an open lion as it roars, the impact the throttle of a steam locomotive.

And then it launches.

Among a crowd of viewers, Barbara claps her hands in excitement. It is a perfect afternoon, blue skies not a single cloud in sight. As Challenger rises in the air, painting a thick brushstroke of smoke, she waves at her departing friend, “Bye Christa, bye crew…see you later!” The winds whip against her face and stirs her hair, but her eyes are transfixed on the rocket that is rising higher… higher… higher until it hurts to crane her neck further in its backwards arc. She shouts one final, “bye!” into the air, hoping it will reach her friends, already separated by miles within the span of seconds.

T+73 seconds.

The students inside the auditorium continue to cheer well past blastoff. Challenger is once again heading into space, but this time with Mrs. McAuliffe aboard, as if the whole room was travelling into space with her. On the screen, CNN correspondent Tom Mintier is saying something, NASA…delays…, but the noise drowns out the broadcast. The spaceship travels in a diagonal trajectory, piercing a hole through an invisible plane on the two-dimensional screen. The raster scan projects electron screams of reds, greens, blues converging into a firework of flaming-copper clouds. The students continue to cheer. Tom stops mid-sentence, but no one notices amidst the noise. The camera zooms out to reveal a sentence of smoke ending in an em dash eruption, then a two-pronged split in diverging directions like bull horns rushing towards then away then into a maddening spiral. And then it is death, silence. “An explosion”, says Tom, describing only what he can see, unable to place the horror of an entire nation into words.

Barbara watches as her friend drops from the sky like an angel stripped of her wings. The falling debris leaves thin wobbling streaks in their wake, an unsteady hand against a blue canvas. Behind her, nameless faces voice their concerns, “that’s not right… that’s not right… that’s not right at all.” Then they are moving, rushing off the platform, searching for someone who can tell them it will be alright. That the explosion looked worse than it actually was. That Christa would walk out of the wrecked hull that landed somewhere over the Atlantic with her hair-singed and in a scratchy, shaking voice tell her to stop crying. The viewing platform is now empty, I can no longer see Barbara, only the steaming evidence of the Challenger’s 73-second journey into orbit, already dispersing into the afternoon air. The video of Barbara was received by NASA from a 3/4” videotape under the Freedom of Information Act, never to be broadcasted to the public.

 

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A few days before Challenger was set to launch, a crowd of reporters, wearing button-down shirts, suits and blazers, carrying bulky camera equipment, line up in a long L shape around the crewmembers, who have donned NASA jumpsuits, the color of the evening sky. They have followed the astronauts to Kennedy Space Station, each one prepared to address their audience with a brief remark on the upcoming journey. Ron McNair, one of three mission specialists aboard the crew of seven, introduces Christa, who walks up to the microphone, long accustomed to speeches and the press, delivers a monologue with the slight air of hometown charm and superficiality that pulls on the nation’s heartstrings.

“We watched Columbia go over the Houston area this morning and that was a thrill.”

As she speaks, her eyes dart away from the cameras for a second towards the sky, exposing a fleeting smile. How could she know that seventeen years from now, as the Columbia began its descent back into earth’s atmosphere, a piece of foam insulation would break off and strike the left wing of the orbiter leaving the spacecraft to disintegrate into a flaming comet? It would be NASA’s second fatal operation, following only the infamous Challenger that she was so excited to board, still standing in one piece and waiting to make history in only a few days. Christa would make it only 46,000 feet in the air, barely breaching the stratosphere, a far distance from her planned escape into orbit.

President Ronald Reagan, in his speech honoring the Teacher in Space Program (TISP) finalists, cracks a joke to an audience easy to please in the presence of the nation’s most important figurehead. “I also want to tell you that your shuttle doesn’t blast off for a while yet, so there’s still time to back out.” The audience laughs and the finalists smile. Barbara hopes that President Reagan’s remarks are directed at her, still ignorant of the prophecy to be carved in the face of one of the nation’s greatest tragedies. For Barbara, that shuttle would blast off much later than she could have possibly imagined. In fact, it would be over twenty years until she prepared to board the Endeavor on a new mission and pick up the torch of her fallen comrade to become the nation’s first teacher in space. But by then, no one seems to care except those whose memories of Jan 28, 1986 play on an infinite loop in their dreams, a bruise that never seems to heal. When asked about Christa during her preflight interview, Barbara says, “Christa was, is, and always will be our teacher in space, the first teacher to fly.”

Later, the public would find out that the Challenger’s explosion was due to O-ring malfunctions, rubber rings used to connect different sections of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, failure to form a seal, allowing hot gas to leak through, ultimately leading to the explosion of several liquid hydrogen tanks. Later investigations uncovered that the O-ring issue had been brought up several times before and highlighted NASA’s irresponsibility in bypassing safety checks. NASA confirmed that at least three of the astronauts survived the initial break-apart, as indicated by the activation of the shuttles Personal Egress Air Packs, but with no evacuation protocols in place, they could only wait for their freefall to conclude. When the cabin impacted with the Atlantic at over 200 mph, no one could have survived the crushing force of over 200 G’s. What was left of the shuttle was instantly crushed, including the astronauts inside.

TISP was supposed to be only the first step in a series that would lead to America’s dream of civilian space travel. In 1986, three weeks before Challenger lifts off, John Noble Wilford of the New York Times wrote, “NASA expects to include private citizens on other flights to communicate the space experience from nontechnical perspectives…In time, poets, painters, laborers, musicians and others will get to fly.” At the time, NASA had already accepted applications from journalists for a trip the following Fall. The Challenger accident brought dreams of an egalitarian outer space to a halt. It wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back, it was a fleet of F-16 bombers. It would be three years until NASA flew its next space operation. Even today, nearly thirty-five years later, dreams of civilian space-travel have not been realized.

 

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When I ask my friends about the teacher in space mission, or Challenger, few know what I am talking about or only have vague notions of the incident. In the span of over three decades, the tragedy has been buried under the weight of history. Many of McAuliffe’s former students have gone on to become teachers themselves. Scott Reynolds, a 1987 Concord HS alumnus who now teaches science at St. Paul’s School in Concord, brings his students to a local cemetery each year to conduct an exercise linking deaths to wars and diseases. As the school bus drives by McAuliffe’s gravestone, he asks his students if they know who she is, who she was. Among his class of nearly thirty, there is always one, one who remembers.

In Emilia Kai Bock’s 2010 documentary, Human Heart, I watch Claire Boucher, more commonly known by her stage name, Grimes, peel a photograph of McAuliffe off her refrigerator. “Who is she?”, Bock asks Boucher. “I forget her name, she was a grade three teacher who died on… Challenger?”, Boucher tentatively responds. “I don’t know, I just think it…I just love this color of blue.” Boucher points to McAuliffe’s jumpsuit, the same one she wore during the crew press release. She flips the photograph over. On the back, words written in black sharpie sprawl in a child’s handwriting: yesterday’s dreams R 2morrows Rainbows. Boucher stares at the words, “It just somehow seems so…yeah.” A feeling of sadness lies behind her voice. The camera zooms in on McAuliffe’s face. “She’s dead”, Boucher says.

During Morgan’s preflight interview, she said, “Christa’s saying was, I touch the future, I teach.” Watching Boucher with her photograph of McAuliffe and unable to understand my own obsessions with the Challenger mission, I begin to think that McAuliffe’s message holds truer than she could have known. While she never did make it to space, I believe that her story finds those who need it, who continue to learn from it. Sitting on my couch, listening to Oblivion, Grimes’s 2012 single off her album Visions, I feel like I can hear a bit of McAuliffe beyond the veil of ephemera and synthesizers, reaching out to me from a planet far, far away.

 

Bowen Chen B’21 needs some space

 

 

Note to the Reader:

As with many others, the events of the Challenger mission left me enthralled and I embarked on a fever-dream obsession that led to this piece. Dear Reader, if this piece left you with many questions, let me clarify, for proprietary reasons and more, where you may have been misled. I am not telepathic, the interiority on display was all sourced from various online print and film materials. That scene within the cockpit of Challenger, moments before blastoff may have left you wondering, how could he possibly know? In that case, the dialogue was all sourced from a transcript of the Challenger operational recorder voice tape. In her interview with the New York Times, a week before the mission launch, Christa talks about her children’s visit to Kennedy Space Station, ‘Caroline singling out the tuna fish sandwiches and Scott mentioning the batting cage down the street’. I doubt she ever made that vow, but would like to think that she was thinking of them, right until the end. The truth is, the Barbara and Christa I have written so much about are characters within my mind’s eye, on paper Morgan and McAuliffe, their factual counterparts. The scene I have written where Barbara rehearses her lines in the mirror are taken from video footage of her semifinalist interview, broadcasted by Idaho Public Television. The opening scene to this story was written based on the account of Kristin Jacques, one of McAuliffe’s former students, in her interview with CBC radio.