I originally wrote this for my high school class email list, during Barbara Morgan’s flight onboard STS-118 in August, 2007, finally completing the “teacher in space” mission. I thought I might share this here, too, especially this week. This is a true story.
For my birthday in 1983, my mom got me a space shuttle tie from the Smithsonian. It immediately became a very special part of my wardrobe. I tried to remember to wear it to work for every shuttle launch and landing — my way of reminding anyone who saw it that people were putting their lives on the line for our space program. After a few missions, I began to notice a curious pattern. Days when I forgot to wear it, the shuttle would not launch. If I wore my shuttle tie, occasionally a launch got scrubbed but, more often then not, they’d get off okay. But if I didn’t wear it, they never launched. I still remember forgetting to wear it the day Discovery, on her first mission, 41D, shut down on the pad after main engine start in September, 1984, scaring the daylights out of everyone. The pattern continued for the next dozen shuttle flights after that.
Then in early January, 1986, the space shuttle Columbia (with then Congressman Bill Nelson on board) had problems launching, with a number of scrubbed attempts. (Atlantis had had a few delays, too, the previous mission.) I began to think my tie was losing it’s magic touch. But, finally, Columbia launched and I had my tie on. Next up was Challenger, 51L, with Christa McAuliffe – the teacher in space.
Challenger, like Columbia, seemed to be having a hard time getting off the ground. There were a few delays and scrubs, including an infuriating one involving a wrench they couldn’t remove from the hatch, with Challenger all set to go on what looked like a perfect day in Florida. That was (if I recall) a Saturday. It must have been on CSpan, because I was watching it at work. Typically, I dressed casually when I went into work on weekends, but that day I had on my tie. It seemed my tie wasn’t infused with magical powers after all. NASA delayed the next attempt for a few more days, until the following Tuesday, just long enough for me to rethink my silly tie superstition (and for a deep cold front to move tragically south). I decided my tie was trying to tell me it needed a rest. So, for the next attempt, instead, I decided I would wear my Smithsonian constellations tie, in honor of Christa McAuliffe’s urging her students to “reach for the stars.”
That day, Challenger exploded. I don’t think I’ve ever worn that tie again. I got home later, ashen and feeling like a car windshield slowly cracking from the days events. I found my shuttle tie still draped over the chair. I remember, finally letting my emotions let go for the first time all day, looking at it with tearful eyes and thinking “you knew, didn’t you?”
In the aftermath of the Challenger accident, the astronauts’ families created the Challenger Center to carry on the crew’s mission. A year after the accident, working as a paralegal for NYNEX, my employer at the time (part of what would become Verizon), I made a $100 donation to the newly formed Challenger Center and then submitted it to NYNEX’s matching contribution program for educational organizations. To my great annoyance, it was rejected. I called to find out why and was told there were two reason. First, they weren’t sure the Challenger Center would be a lasting effort, having been formed as a reaction to a tragedy, the emotional impact of which would presumably fade over time (in other words, as emotions diminished, so might donations). I think I convinced them they might wrong on that count. But they had me on their second requirement, that eligible educational organizations had to be four-year colleges. I couldn’t get around that one. But, somehow, I must have said something right. To my surprise, the young woman at the other end of the phone suggested “if you feel that strongly, why don’t you propose them for a grant?”
“A grant? I can do that (being a low-level paralegal)? Okay.” So I did. A year or so later (the bureaucracy moved slowly), NYNEX presented the Challenger Center with a $25,000 grant. The grant would be used to help pay for a first-ever nationwide teleconference, aired from Washington, D.C., broadcast to (and thereby linking) all the Challenger Centers around the country. On hand would be a few astronauts and members of the Challenger astronauts’ families. And NYNEX let me go, too.
Finally, the day of the teleconference arrived. That I was even there, playing a part in the aftermath of the Challenger accident itself, was a bit overwhelming. I felt like the proverbial “the world is a tuxedo and I’m a pair of brown shoes.” But that was about to change.
There was a little time before the program began and I was standing there in the middle of the studio trying to stay out of peoples’ way, when suddenly I made eye contact with June Scobee, widow of Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, who was walking past in front of me, some ten feet away. If she hadn’t looked to her right when she did, she would probably have never noticed me. But, without hesitating, she turned and came straight over (she’s coming over to me?) and, to my surprise, we began talking. (Even more surprising was that didn’t stammer. In fact, uncharacteristically, I suddenly felt quite at peace.) What followed was a moment I will never forget.
I was, naturally, wearing my Smithsonian shuttle tie — the very tie I deliberately did not wear the morning her husband and his crew were lost. The next thing I knew, she looked at my tie and very gently, almost reverentially, took it in her hands. She almost whispered, “You know, Dick used to have a tie just like this one.” “It was his favorite.” I replied, “I know — it’s a very special tie.” She leaned back a bit, stared hard into my eyes, like she was X-raying my soul, turned her head slightly, gave me a soft smile and pointed her finger at me, shaking it slowly a few times up and down, and finally said, “You know, I think I like you.” With that, she kissed me on the cheek and went back to work helping get the program started.
I had to fight to hold back the tears.
Today [this was originally written August 16, 2007], Teacher-Astronaut Barbara Morgan, Christa McAuliffe’s original backup, finally got to do the lesson from space Christa McAuliffe should have done 21 years ago. And at the other end speaking to her, from the Earth below, just as they did at the NYNEX sponsored teleconference, was June Scobee Rogers (having remarried) and some kids from the Challenger Center in Alexandria, VA. I couldn’t help get a bit misty-eyed thinking back at all this.
If you’re wondering, yes, I was wearing my shuttle tie when Endeavour launched the second “teacher in space” last week, and for that, I got a bit misty-eyed too. And I’ll be wearing my tie hoping to help make sure Endeavour and her crew come home safely next week, as well. It may still be a silly superstition, but I owe it to June Scobee Rogers and her first husband and his Challenger crew.