Thirty one years ago today, on a run-of-the-mill Tuesday with no expectations of anything special, I sat in my office, reading for work and drinking coffee. Right before lunch, I received a call from my friend Ed, a fellow space and science fiction buff, frantically telling me that the Space Shuttle had exploded. After chiding him for joking around, he insisted that I turn on a radio or television to see what had happened. I went to my boss’s office to tell him so he’d turn on his TV. What greeted me on the screen was that horrible fireball that could only mean one thing: At 11:39 AM, after 73 seconds of flight, something had gone terribly wrong.
The rest of the day is a blur to me, other than talking about it and trying to sneak in as much radio time as I could to educate myself on what had occurred. The events of twenty-eight years ago are a tragic reminder that being a pioneering nation is not without risks and the loss of human life. We recovered, and so did the Space Program, after much soul-searching and investigations that revealed malfeasance and incompetence. We’ve had other accidents since, and we will no doubt have others. Exploration is a risky business.
That evening I watched President Ronald Reagan deliver a beautiful 5-minute tribute to these brave men and women.
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
No.412 squadron, RCAF
Killed, 11 December 1941