Go At Throttle Up

February 19, 2011

Would you leave your wife’s side while she labored to recover from a much publicized assassination attempt, and go back to work – as commander of the Space Shuttle?  Would you pray your wife is strong enough to watch your launch in person?

I have a million news images seared into my brain.

Some that I witnessed firsthand. Others experienced via magazine photo, newspaper photo, or video broadcast.

Here are three you might recall without having to actually see them:

  1. The lone Chinese patriot, shopping bag in hand, staring down tanks at Tiananmen Square
  2. The World Trade Center Twin Towers in Flames
  3. Napalm Girl running down the road, screaming, in Vietnam

One that is ever present and manages to float into my consciousness more often than I would like is this one.

Challenger Explodes.

The pride of our nation – our Space Shuttle – carrying a civilian teacher aboard – with millions of school children watching and tracking the flight. Gone in an instant, 25 years ago last month.

I am the noon show producer at KXTV in Sacramento when this is happening.  I am up early in the morning (like 3 AM)  to monitor the feeds from CBS and plan my show.  The public has become so blasé about space travel at this point, no one, except CNN is covering it live.  I am planning for a short VOSOT (voice-over/sound on tape) on my show. I will play up the teacher/civilian passenger angle.

But the unthinkable happens. The damn thing blows up, and 7 people – astronauts and a civilian die, some, apparently in the explosion, others, apparently, when the shuttle smashes into the sea.

I produced our live coverage in Sacramento that day through tears I could not stop. Thinking of the loss of life, of the loss of the symbol of America’s technical edge, I also grieved for the school kids getting a little too much reality in their lesson plan that morning.

Then, 8 years ago this month, a second space shuttle – Columbia – with 7 brave souls aboard – disintegrates as it is returning to earth – spraying a broad swath of Texas and other states with its remains.

Why on earth would someone willingly fly into space?

Why indeed.

After one more thunderous, awe-inspiring blast-off, currently scheduled for April, and the successful conclusion of its mission to bring experiments and supplies to the International Space Station, the Space Shuttle Endeavor will wind up in a museum (it is unclear which institution can afford the 42 million dollars it will cost to transport and prepare the Shuttle for exhibit), or be sold for scrap to finance the planned final Space Shuttle mission – Shuttle Atlantis’s 33rd  flight later this year.

One of these two missions will mark Shuttle’s end. Without additional congressional funding, Atlantis will not fly, and by default, Endeavor’s flight would close out this phase of America’s exploration of space with no real, funded plans for future American manned space exploration after these Shuttle flights end.

Endeavor’s Commander is Mark Kelly.  A consummate and experienced space professional, he has flown into space three times previously.  He is also one half of a space family.  His twin brother, Scott, is currently an astronaut on the International Space Station, but because of a delay in the launch schedule, a planned for meeting of the brothers in space, the first of its kind ever, will have to wait for another time and place.  Scott will have returned to earth by the time Mark blasts off on his mission.

Mark also is the husband of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson, recently shot through the head at point blank range in an assassination attempt.  Kelly as has been at his wife’s side, helping nurse her through the tragedy of her shooting. His bedside presence has been an inspiration and, I am sure, a positive factor in her rehabilitation.

Mark’s dream, and mine, is that his wife will watch him launch into space. And someday, I also dream he will watch Gabby run for re-election if she chooses.

Gabby knows, or at least knew, the dangers her husband faced on his job.  Just as every cop’s or firefighter’s spouse knows the dangers when their loved one goes off to work.

By the way fisherman have the most dangerous occupation in America. Loggers are next on the list.

There are real dangers when we live life. Even every day lives.  Just ask the moms who send their children to walk to school through the killing fields of south and west Chicago on what should be a routine safe journey every day. Twenty five of their innocent children don’t return home on any given year.

And there are real decisions to be made. By each of us.

But the biggest decision is to consciously live Life, fully, every day.


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