Burnt Orange on a Clear Blue Sky

by Jim Farrar (January 28, 1986)

Other words were intended for these pages. Today's events have made them seem silly by comparison and the following subject, though not a happy one, is the only one I can address at the moment.

It was lunchtime. I'd just found a table in the Union Street Cafe when I saw the replay. I looked up at the television set, wondering why there were so many people gathered around it. All I could see on the screen was an orange ball of flame, a terrible explosion being played back in slow motion.

The sound had been turned down, but I knew immediately what was, literally, going down. I knew that it was the space shuttle burning there on the screen. I knew, but I asked the people at the next table what had happened anyway. I was told. My lunch remained uneaten.

During the afternoon, CBS played the whole thing over and over again. We all dutifully watched and we were all dutifully silent.

Which is the strangest thing of all, this silence. All afternoon – all day, in fact – I never really heard anybody talk about it, other than to acknowledge that it had happened. But there was always a bunch of people huddled around the various television sets I passed this afternoon. Shock, certainly, and sadness.

The usual clichés are appropriate and, as I write, President Reagan is about to address the nation. There's not too much to say at this point. The President still has to say something because it's expected of him. And I'm sure that NASA will eventually tell us why it happened. But other than facing the fact that it did happen, are there any words that can change how we feel?

Cool reason and analyses seem a little out of context right now. They're newsworthy, but they don't really touch the emotional center of this tragedy. The fact that the President cancelled his State of the Union address is, I think, more symbolic of our loss than anything he could say.

Notice that I say our loss, that I use the plural. It's what the space program represents that makes this so painful. It symbolizes not only our forward motion as a nation, but as a species. It's a noble undertaking, peaceful and progressive, and I think we have a right to be proud of our accomplishments in space. Though the day's events may cast a shadow over the program, I think we'd be wise to remember that the price of progress is the occasional failure.

Sooner or later, I guess something like this was bound to happen. Or at least that's what they're saying. That doesn't lessen the shock of seeing a burnt orange fireball with a convoluted contrail outlined against blue sky, or of realizing that there are human beings trapped in the center of the horrible thing. It's a danger that's always there, I guess, but right now it's a truth that somehow seems hollow.

I remember a night about nineteen years ago. I was ten years old at the time. My parents and I were watching television when the program that was on was interrupted and we were told in appropriately sober tones that fire had swept through a capsule atop a Saturn 1-B rocket that was on the ground, killing astronauts White, Chaffee, and Grissom. I remember it very well. The capsule they were in was a prototype for the series of Apollo missions that would follow.

This is one the clearest memories of my childhood, even more so than the night my father died, a different kind of trauma that, luckily, I don't remember too much about. But this one stands clear in my mind, and, though I'm almost twenty years older, the same feeling I had then came over me this afternoon when I first learned of what had happened to the space shuttle. A flood of old memories came back to me. It's funny how tragedy can become a point of reference in our lives. I feel as though I'm once again ten years old, curiously saddened by the death of seven people whose names I don't even know.

But their names are not the point, not for me. My father was a test pilot. Consequently, I grew up watching the space program. And it grew up with me. I remember watching every Gemini and Apollo mission from liftoff to splashdown. I remember the nation's exhilaration when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969 (a point of reference that is not a catastrophe), and the near tragedy of Apollo 13, when the oxygen line broke aboard the command module. Good and bad, success and failure, it's been the best damned adventure series yet seen. It's our future. It represents progress, humanity at its best. It still does, even after today.

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