MY SMALL ROLE IN A SAD
AND UNFORGETTABLE DAY
It’s interesting how individual lives are touched by great events.
Before coming to Michigan to work as Public Affairs Director for Hillsdale College, I was a freelance writer and media consultant in Colorado, where among my clients was: Hillsdale College.
I had taken an assignment to develop publicity for one of Hillsdale’s highly regarded public policy seminars, which was to be held in Denver on January 28, 1986.
To that end, I was able to arrange interviews for the two principal seminar presenters — columnist Joseph Sobran, then a senior editor at National Review, and Lyn Nofziger, press secretary for President Ronald Reagan. As the interviews were to be held at two different local radio stations, I drove Sobran to his; a College staff member accompanied Nofziger.
Sobran’s segment went well during its first half, and then the host cut away for news at the bottom of the hour. A couple minutes after returning to the air, an engineer in the control booth started waiving his arms frantically, and the host announced that we were going to the network for a breaking story.
The space shuttle, Challenger, had exploded during lift-off.
Naturally, that was the end of the interview. I hurriedly returned Sobran to the hotel where Hillsdale’s seminar was to be held, and then hot-footed it down to Colorado Springs and the headquarters of the United States Space Foundation.
The Foundation was another client of mine at that time. I had been handling press relations for its international Space Symposium, an annual gathering of aerospace companies along with military, civilian and NASA space experts, plus organizations involved with the shuttle program and related technological innovations.
When I arrived at the Foundation offices, I learned that the executive director (later president), Col. Richard P. “Dick” MacLeod (USAF, Retired), was out of town. So I found myself sitting at his desk fielding telephone calls from local and national media as well as from concerned individuals all over the country. I did phone interviews and even a couple of TV news spots as Dick’s stand-in.
The question asked of me over and over all that long day was: “What can we do to help?”
Everyone was shocked by the disaster, in which seven astronauts had perished. Organizations and private citizens alike were eager to assist the families of the deceased or in some way help to ensure that the shuttle program wouldn’t be crippled by this tragedy.
It was a spontaneous and truly national outpouring of grief and concern. Although, I must say that the impact of that shocking event was probably felt with special intensity right in “The Springs.” Indeed, Colorado Springs was home to the U.S. Space Command, NORAD, and other defense installations and aerospace supplier companies. Many local residents were involved with the shuttle program, directly or indirectly. Some had personal ties with the Challenger crew and support staff.
The Space Foundation was touched most directly by the death of Christa McAuliffe, the first representative of NASA’s Teacher in Space initiative. We had been developing our own extensive outreach to schools, holding teacher training camps, and distributing curriculum materials that incorporated space-related topics for use in elementary and secondary education.
Our worry — shared by numerous educators — was that McAuliffe’s death might be so shocking to children and parents that there would be an outcry against including civilians on spaceflights and the effectiveness of space as a teaching tool might be compromised. This would have been a great loss, since space topics were proving effective at stimulating student interest in the wide variety of subjects to which they were applied.
Fortunately, President Reagan was committed to the Teacher in Space initiative…
“Pioneers have always given their lives on the frontier…” he told a group of reporters after the tragedy, “but we have to make it clear to the children that life goes on.”
Right from that terrible day, the Space Foundation began receiving so many offers of money that the board of directors decided to organize a special fund. Its purpose was at first undefined. Would the money be used to help the astronaut families? Would it be donated to NASA?
With other groups offering personal assistance, the decision was made that we would put the contributions we received toward the building of a replacement shuttle. We then promoted the fund on that basis.
Some years later, when I had joined the Hillsdale College staff, I met Joe Sobran again. During lunch we shared a reminiscence about the Challenger — which, understandably, had thrown a very wet blanket over the seminar at which he spoke in Denver that day. But our frantic moment in a radio studio was as vivid to him as it was to me.
Such experiences tend to stick with you.
After 30 years, my small role in the aftermath of the Challenger tragedy still leaves me with a firm conviction of the generosity and compassion that mark our country.
Don’t let anyone with an ideological ax to grind tell you we’re an unfeeling people. Neither are we irredeemably bigoted. The gender and ethnic profiles of those seven brave explorers reflected the diversity of this nation and drew the sympathy of all Americans.
That fine group of men and women who strove to unlock an aspect of creation’s secrets were given their chance to try. Then, as in Ronald Reagan’s moving recitation of those lines from Canadian poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr., they…
“slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who as Ronald Reagan’s speechwriter included Magee’s heartrending lines in the President’s speech, offers her own reflection on the Challenger disaster in AARP Magazine…
Here’s how CNN covered lift-off of the Challenger, which looked perfectly normal — for awhile. Especially interesting is how bland were the narrator’s comments about “a major malfunction” (some notes have been superimposed on the video)…