Capitol Building, Challenger, Christa McAuliffe, D.C., Discovery, NASA, National Mall, Ronald Reagan, Space Shuttle Challenger, Space Shuttle Discovery, Teacher in Space, Washington DC, Washington Monument
Today I left for work early and excited. This doesn’t happen every day, but today I had something big to look forward to. The Space Shuttle Discovery was scheduled to fly over D.C. on its journey to Dulles, Virginia. There it will find its final resting place at the Udvar-Hazy space museum. But on this beautiful, sunny April morning, I had the chance to catch a final glimpse of the glorious shuttle in flight one last time.
Lucky for me, I work in downtown D.C., just a few steps from the National Mall. So when I heard that the shuttle would be strapped to the top of a jetliner and flown over the city, I suddenly had no problem waking up and had no need for the snooze button. (A welcome rest for that poor button, I’m sure.)
In case you don’t know, the Space Shuttle Discovery is a big deal. It first launched in 1984, and spent a cumulative 365 days in space before its final touchdown at Kennedy Space Center in March 2011. It performed critical research and International Space Station assembly missions. And it flew the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit.
And now, in the wake of NASA’s Space Shuttle Program closing down last year, we’re left to wonder if these amazing moments are gone forever. I feel sad when I think about it. Because no matter how much I hate tax hikes and superfluous government spending, I love discovery.
Despite the sadness, as I stood in the middle of the National Mall this morning — flanked on my left by the Capitol Building and on my right by the Washington Monument — I felt a surge of pride. Standing beside thousands of fellow Americans and giddy tourists, each of us equally excited, we all raised our cameras, camcorders and iPhones in the air. And then it happened — history unfolded before our very eyes.
Yes, it was cool to see the shuttle. It was cool to see a jetliner fly so low. But, the coolest part for me was the experience. To hear the crowd cheering, to see the children jumping up and down, to see the looks of awe on people’s faces — those are the moments I won’t forget. I fought back tears as I took it all in.
I heard a little girl, maybe six years old, say: “That’s so cool! That’s something from SPACE!”
I heard a younger boy simply yell: “Awesome!”
I heard another little girl, about eight years old, ask her mom: “So this is the last time we’ll see a space shuttle?”
My heart sank.
“Hopefully not, honey,” her mom replied.
At 10:00 a.m. on a sunny Tuesday morning, I felt like I was part of something. I felt important. I felt connected.
As I walked back to my office, I couldn’t shake the sense of pride. I passed a group of women, giggling and perusing each other’s photos. One screamed: “I was jumping up and down like I saw Michael Jackson!”
As for me, the 5-year-old Ruthie was out in full force. I distinctly remember sitting in Mrs. Whiting’s kindergarten class, a room full of little eyes glued to the television screen as we watched the mighty Space Shuttle Challenger blast off. And I remember a room full of scared little eyes as we watched the shuttle break apart just 73 seconds after lift off. Today these memories flood back.
Not far behind is 7-year-old Ruthie, whose second grade teacher, Mrs. Duane, had been one of the semi-finalists for President Reagan’s Teacher in Space Program — the winner of which would be the first civilian to travel to space. As you know, she didn’t win, but she knew the teacher who did — Christa McAuliffe. The effect it had on Mrs. Duane was palpable. Even as a little girl, I remember the sadness in her eyes as she talked about that shuttle mission, about Christa. I remember sitting — every single day — in a circle and eating astronaut ice-cream as we listened to Mrs. Duane repeat the story over and over again. That mission even affected me, you see — because I spent so much of second grade talking about the Challenger, that to this day I still have trouble remembering what 9×8 is.
But today I didn’t think about multiplication tables. Today I didn’t think about work (although I do have to run to a three-hour meeting after this lunch break). Today I thought about my childhood. I thought about the children around me. I thought about the adults, acting like children as we all screamed and clapped and laughed.
We need more moments like this. We need to drop our briefcases, our schedules and our stress at the door. We need to roll around in the grass, point to the sky and yell: “AWESOME!” If we can do that, we might start experiencing life again.