… a gasp. No, not even that. All the air went out of the room, the shop where we learned “Industrial Arts” in the 8th grade in East Rochester. For at least those few seconds where our not yet adult minds we were all on the same page. There were no jocks, no nerds, no cheerleaders, heads, goths or whatever label young people like to apply to themselves. The only label that mattered after what we just saw was heartbroken.
The day had started so well. I think all of us were eager to watch the launch. No matter the age old trope of teacher v student in our hearts, most kids know that their teachers are important parts of their lives. They are everyday people that influence the people we will become so when one their ranks was chosen to be the first non-specialist to go up on a launch we were all thrilled. I thought about what it would be like to have Mrs. Young, or Mr. Beaurline, with whom we watched the launch, strapped in that shuttle cockpit. Or Mr. Verzella. Can you ER folk imagine what Mr. V in space would be like? I did.
The mid eighties were the end of a magic time, of sorts. Through the sixties and seventies, and up until that point it seemed increasingly likely that anything was possible. Whether you were rich or poor, Democrat or Republican, blue collar or white collar, you were shown a universe in which maybe we could live on the moon one day. Maybe we would live on the bottom of the ocean. Maybe we could live in great arcologies that would leave the environment around them pristine. New wonders were popping up every day.
We Gen Xers were the first generation to be born into a world with astronauts, and we are, maybe, the last to hold those men and women in universal, if varying, regard. It is not that younger folk do not care, they are just no longer exposed to it the way we were. We rode that wave of wonder from cradle right up to that fateful day. The day that regular folk were supposed to take their first steps into the “final frontier.” We rode it with eager relish right up to the moment of launch. Eyes wide we saw the whole thing play out like a cruel joke. A puff of smoke with the boosters trailing away like the Devil’s horns. In that moment wonder died, just a little.
The lesson was harsh. Not all that is wonderful is possible. Engineers, and astronauts, and the people who bring us a brighter, faster future are just men and women that miss things like the effect of low temperatures on O-rings. Cities on the moon, settlements on the sea floor, and a million other delights disappeared in an instant, and to a degree, I think, our appetite for them. The greatest space program in the history of such was put on hiatus, and when it came back, it was only to watch one of its most visible symbols rendered obsolete.
Little by little though it has been coming back. Men like Neil DeGrasse Tyson have us looking at the skies again. Our once struggling space program has sent us our first close up images of Pluto and a comet. We talk about sending probes to the oceans of Europa. Wonder, fueled by the endless chatter of social media is returning, and I hope it is here to stay.