Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Endeavor Launch Enlightenment

I managed to get to work early today and realized, when I opened my breaking-news e-mail, that the space shuttle Endeavor would be launching live. I have always been a bit of a space-flight buff, watching every lift-off I could in my early days. For me, the moon shot was life-changing, and the shuttle launches were exciting, even though they became more routine over the years.

Like many people, I have a special interest in Endeavor, commanded by Mark Kelly, the husband of the critically wounded Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, so I pulled up a small, live-launch screen on my computer, plugged in a set of ear buds, and got busy on my latest work assignment, knowing I would hear the countdown and could pop the little screen up just in time for lift-off.

What I did not anticipate was my own intense response. When the rockets lit up, I was overwhelmed with sudden fear and absolute trepidation. My hands balled up in fists so tight that I had indentations in my palms from my fingernails. I was sweating and nauseated. I found myself praying with all my might that nothing would go wrong.

I was momentarily confused over my reaction…until it occurred to me that I had not seen a single launch since the day of the Challenger explosion, 25 long years ago.

Everyone that could find a television was watching on that day, too. We all wanted to see the first non-astronaut woman blast off into space. We never expected that it would end in a devastating explosion that would take the lives of Christa McAuliffe and the dedicated Challenger crew. I was just about to leave for work as I watched Challenger lift off. I stood there, numb with shock and disbelief, as the world watched with me…in horror.

A quarter century has passed, but it was only this morning, as I watched the final lift-off of the shuttle that was built to replace Challenger, that comprehension finally dawned. Somewhere in the back of my brain I had not wanted to witness another mass tragedy, on live television. Without a single conscious thought about it, I had quit watching the launches, and never even noticed.

I am continually amazed at the power of the human psyche to protect us from the things that upset us. It makes me wonder what other things my brain has shut out of my memory in an effort to keep me from suffering from my own thoughts.

But even as I wondered about my own reaction to the Endeavor launch, I felt pain for the families and friends of Christa McAuliffe and the crew of Challenger. I wondered about the extent to which Christa McAuliffe’s students, all sitting there watching the launch on TV, were psychologically damaged by the event. I wonder how many of them ever watched another launch.

In spite of the fact that the last launch in the shuttle program is impending, I am not sure I can voluntarily watch it.