”We waited for the shuttle to land, and it never came….
It was one of those terrible moments that will forever be burned in my memory....
It was about 8.30 on a quiet Saturday morning. I was puttering around the house in my pajamas, nursing a cup of coffee- a thoroughly unremarkable morning in what promised to be a thoroughly unremarkable day. Then the phone rang. Adam was on the other end, and when I heard him, I immediately knew that something was terribly wrong. He was supposed to be judging at a debate tournament in Crosby, about 50 miles north of Seabrook, so my immediate reaction was to run through the normal catalog of what would occur to any parent- accident, injury, death, or combinations of the above.
“Have you heard the news?”, he asked ominously. No, I replied, I hadn’t.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“The space shuttle blew up over north Texas.”
My foggy consciousness immediately ground to a halt. While I was thankful that Adam was physically OK, I suddenly understood why Adam was so distraught. His best friend’s stepfather was the pilot onboard Columbia. Adam had been invited to go to the launch and the landing at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, but didn't go because he couldn’t afford a plane ticket. His friend called him from the landing site, telling him what little he knew, which wasn’t much, but certainly enough to cause alarm. The shuttle was due to land in Florida at 8.16am CT, but it never arrived.
What do you say to a teenager when he presents you with news like this? I immediately flashed back to the Challenger disaster in January, 1986. Not again, I thought. Not again. I honestly don’t remember the rest of our conversation. I hung up the phone, numb and in total disbelief. I turned on the television, found CNN, and learned that what Adam had told me about was, in fact, reality.
As I write this, at 1145am CT, we all have seen the video clip from Dallas’ WFAA endlessly. At an altitude of 200,000 feet, and at an airspeed of 12,500 MPH, the shuttle looks as if simply broke apart. The shuttle’s last communication with Houston Mission Control was at 8am. Seven astronauts were aboard. No one really knows anything, but there are plenty of talking heads holding forth on this tragedy. I suppose they have to fill the programming time with something, but I am sick to death of watching seven astronauts repeatedly blow up, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. And yet I continue to watch, hoping against hope that there will be good news to follow.
Adam had been particularly excited about this shuttle mission. He had a very real and very personal connection, and he had a mission T-shirt and stickers in his car. I feel for his friend, who was waiting at the landing site and still thinks his father may have survived. No one should have to deal with losing a parent in such a violent and very public manner.
The entire Bay Area community will be hit hard by this tragedy. The Johnson Space Center is four miles away down NASA Road 1. NASA people make up a large part of the community here. Most of us know someone who works at NASA, and, more specifically, with the Space Shuttle program. Their children go to Clear Lake High School, where Adam graduated from, and Eric currently attends. Most, if not all of us who live in the Bay Area will be impacted by this tragedy in some manner.
CNN is now broadcasting images of pieces of the shuttle in and around Nacogdoches, TX. It’s difficult to see the tiny pieces of debris and maintain any hope that any of the astronauts are coming home. What should have been a "routine" shuttle landing, if such an event can be thought of as routine, has instead become a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. I only hope that the astronauts did not suffer.