A Sputnik baby remembers Challenger and looks to the future

Ninth in a series

by Gray Smith

I’m a Sputnik baby. Who knows – perhaps my birth in June of 1958 was the result of some Sputnik-induced frolic, since its launch would have been precisely nine months before.

As a kid, I was a total space geek. I wrote many letters to NASA – scrawled on grade-school writing tablet paper – filled with questions, space ship ideas and pictures. To their credit, NASA always responded – with thick, glossy brochures about Mercury, Gemini, and later, Apollo, which I still have today. I belonged to the club that sent a space-related scale model kit every month, and had the gold coin collection that commemorated every flight, as well as a model of the Saturn 5 that stood nearly four feet high. My dad and I built (and lost) LOTS of Estes model rockets, and the G.I. Joe astronaut and capsule was my favorite toy. My best childhood vacation was a tour of the Kennedy Space Center. I had it bad. Even then, I believe I realized just how much ingenuity and courage was required for success in space.

It seems that Americans demonstrate their need for immediate gratification on virtually every subject. It wasn’t long before moon landings, and later shuttle launches, became routine. (On a recent trip to the Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian, my young son was most unimpressed with the moon dust that clung to a space suit on display.) Americans were bored with space.

Until tragedy reminded us of the astonishing difficulty and heroism of space travel.

It was with some hesitation that I decided to carry the launch of the Challenger that day live on my radio show. My concern was that public boredom with the Shuttle program would drive listeners to some other station. My own curiosity won, and we aired the audio. The launch appeared to proceed flawlessly, and I eased back into music. Just as I reached up to turn off the launch audio feed, the Challenger exploded. The live coverage resumed, and we all sat together, host and listener, taking in the nightmare together in stunned silence.

Not long after, some critics used this tragedy, and others, to argue against space exploration, saying that it wasn’t worth the hazards. It was the astronauts themselves who most strongly believed that the rewards to humankind were worth the risks they faced. The launch pad sat silent for many months, until designs could be changed. Thankfully, and with due fanfare, exploration resumed.

Twenty-five years later, after countless and mind-boggling new breakthroughs and discoveries, the pad is silent again, the victim of boredom, budget and lack of direction.

I’m still a space geek. Only now, I’m motivated by the larger view that exploration of our universe is essential to the well being of our species. The future will, no doubt, continue to deliver tragic wake-up calls. I hope the next one, though, doesn’t come as a result of our failure to continue the bold and essential exploration of this universe we all come from.

Gray Smith is Director of Corporate Support at Louisville Public Media and the 2011 recipient of the Public Radio Association of Development Officers’ Development Professional of the Year Award. Under Gray’s direction, Louisville Public Media increased underwriting revenue 900% over the past 15 years, and in a recent three-year period the underwriting staff generated an average of 2 million dollars a year.

Categories: History, Science/Technology

Tagged as: