Remembering the dreamers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 29, 2004

If it was as cold on that January morning as it is today I don't remember it. I do seem to remember a sunny, beautiful day.

I was rushing from Opp to LBW in Andalusia for a morning class. Halfway there I turned on the radio, fumbled around until I found something that appealed to me and pushed up the volume.

A reporter's voice interrupted the song with a news bulletin. I listened in disbelief as he reported that the Challenger had exploded.

He said it happened shortly after liftoff and his voice shook as he talked about the crew on board the space shuttle.

I almost came to a stop as what I was hearing hit me. It seemed unreal, impossible.

For weeks there had been stories in the news about this crew, specifically about the teacher who was a member. She was the first teacher to go into space and it was exciting. In fact, it seemed to energize the publicity about the space program.

By the time of the Challenger in the late 1980s, rockets blasting into space were a routine thing. The days when everyone stopped to watch a liftoff on television were pretty much in the past.

But on that morning, we were watching again like we had when we traveled in our imaginations with John Glenn and other early astronauts. With the exception of the Apollo 1 fire, the American manned space program had success after success and that was what we expected. There had never been an in-flight disaster.

Now the reality of failure and the toll it took in terms of human life hit us and sent a nation into mourning.

As I thought about that morning and the feelings I experienced, I fast forwarded to another morning not so many years ago. It was a Saturday in February. I was cleaning house when the reporter broke into the television program.

Again, I heard the unthinkable. The Columbia had been lost as it returned from a mission. Another failure - more astronauts killed.

Thinking about the anniversaries of these tragedies makes me sad for families who lost loved ones, but it also makes me grateful to the astronauts who were willing to live the adventure for us all.

They dared to follow their dreams despite the risk. Fear of the unknown didn't keep them from living their lives at full throttle.

That is the legacy these brave Americans leave for us all. It is what we can focus upon when we remember those two winter mornings when the heavens opened to welcome courageous space travelers into eternity.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;

Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of- wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,

I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up, up the long, delirious burning blue

I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never Lark, or even Eagle flew –

And while with silent lifting mind, I've trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space,

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

- John Gillespie Magee, Jr. 1922-1944