Touching the Face of God

January 28, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Two days ago, I wrote about a tenth anniversary. Today, I'll turn the clock back another decade.

In my life, there have been two nationally seismic events - world-wide news stories that have been given constant television coverage and that have shaken my perceptions of the reality in which we exist. The most recent occurred on September 11, 2001, and needs no further explanation. The other happened on January 28, 1986. That was the day I learned how the previous generation felt on November 22, 1963 (four years before I was born). January 28 was the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded.

There have been other televised news events that have had an impact - Reagan's near-assassination in 1981, R. Bud Dwyer blowing his head off during a live press conference, Columbia's disintegration, the destruction of New Orleans - but none has generated a similar degree of sick fascination to the one that gripped me on that chilly January afternoon and that gorgeous September morning.

I was a freshman in college in early 1986, largely insulated from the outside world as I concentrated on studying and going to classes. I listened to the news in the morning as I got ready for the day, and sometimes at night. During the day, however, there was no time for radios or TVs (and this was before I had Internet access anywhere but at the computer lab). So I didn't learn about the Challenger explosion until I walked into my 4:00 pm Religious Studies class ("The Letters of Paul"). Someone mentioned that the space shuttle had exploded. At first, I thought he was joking, but then I remembered the temperature-related concerns surrounding the launch, and I realized he was serious. I made an excuse to the professor and returned to my dorm room. I did little besides watch my 12" black-and-white television set for the next eight hours, watching the same pictures over and over again.

They were like images out of a movie, but the feeling in the pit of my stomach was like nothing any film before or after has given me. It wasn't only the seven deaths - the "Challenger Seven" who "slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God" (Reagan quoting John Gillespie Magee) - but the recognition that space travel was not routine and technology was fallible. It was a sobering moment to end sobering moments.

It was also the first time I recognized the power of TV news to captivate and unite. The available footage - of the shuttle taking off then exploding less than two minutes later, of the horrified reactions of spectators, and of NASA's confusion - could have been encapsulated, with complete coverage of all that was known - in less than 30 minutes. But nearly everyone I knew stayed glued to the television in a national communion of shock. The familiar presences of Peter Jennings (RIP), Tom Brokaw, and Dan Rather were sources of comfort. (This was played out on a larger scale in September 2001.)

In subsequent days and months, we would learn that the Challenger Seven were victims of corporate greed and mismanagement, and many non-engineers would hear the term "O-ring" for the first time. The saddest truths to emerge from the Challenger investigation were how unnecessary the accident was and that if the space shuttle had been developed with an escape system, there might have been survivors. (Some of the astronauts were confirmed to have survived the explosion, but there was no way to get out of the cabin. It quickly depressurized then crashed into the ocean at 200 miles per hour. The impact killed anyone who was still alive.)

20 years later, the explosion seems more like a footnote in 20th century history than a major milestone. Yet for like-minded individuals of my generation, January 28 is a day we do not forget. The experience of "being there" (if only via television) leaves a bigger impression than reading about it or watching documentaries. Challenger taught us lessons about ourselves, the world we live in, and the pernicious nature of Big Business.