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Shuttle Disaster

Another tragedy, a new awareness

By JIM VERHULST, Times Suburban Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2003


As I sleepily counted out seven rounded scoops into the filter cone for the morning coffee, seven astronauts were dying.

I didn't know it then. Later Saturday morning, my wife and I were driving our boys to their piano recital. National Public Radio was on, and we should have been hearing Car Talk. Instead, there was a lot of talk of escape systems, pressure suits and the space shuttle. It all seemed odd.

Then we turned from Haines Road on to U.S. 19 and heard the news. For those just joining us ... the shuttle has broken apart while coming back home. I felt sick, again.

Almost exactly 17 years ago, I was the front page editor of the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire. It was the hometown paper of Christa McAuliffe, who was supposed to be the first teacher in space.

She never made it.

That cold morning in Concord, our little newsroom gathered around the one TV to watch the Challenger. Our presses were supposed to start rolling less than half an hour after liftoff. With so little time, we had prepared two front pages with two different outcomes -- a successful launch or a "scrub," a delay. We didn't have one ready for what actually happened.

We saw Challenger blow up and the booster rockets describe crazy arcs in the sky. We didn't know what we had just seen, but we knew it wasn't good. We scrambled and, mercifully for the next short while, we had to be pros before we could be people.

We had work to do. We made our headline -- SHUTTLE EXPLODES -- as big as we could. But our ancient typesetting machines had size limits, so we took the headline, put it on a regular office copy machine and enlarged it. We put that photocopied headline on to the front page, then on to the press. We put a black border around a color picture of Christa that we had in the office -- it was prepared for publication on a happy occasion -- and put it on the front page, too. We rolled the presses.

Then it began to sink in. We had watched seven astronauts die right before our eyes on international TV. One of them was a hometown hero, a woman my wife had known from teaching at Concord High School. Christa would never come home to the classroom, to her husband, to her young son and daughter.

Those children are 17 years older now -- adults -- and the world is a different place. The Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall is down. DVDs, the Internet and personal computers are everywhere. Another Beatle has since died, and the United States has fought two wars. Barbara Morgan was supposed to be the second teacher in space. When Christa McAuliffe died, a promise was made that she would get her chance. Only seven weeks ago, NASA prepared to keep that vow. She was to fly in November. I wonder if she will.

Who knows? Eighteen months ago, who would have thought that terrorists would fly jetliners into the World Trade Center, that the United States would go to war in Afghanistan? We simply don't know what will happen next. But we can hope.

When my family piled out of our Volvo wagon at Saturday morning's recital, I ducked into an office to watch Dan Rather. I saw the amateur video of the shuttle streaking home over Texas, then breaking into several narrow ribbons of flame. I flashed back 17 years. Once again, I was watching seven astronauts die before my eyes. This time, the streams of smoke were coming at the end of a mission. They had made it to space. They just couldn't make it home.

I thought about how the shuttle enters our consciousness. Just days ago, many of us in the St. Petersburg Times newsroom had streamed to the east windows to see this shuttle take off. Think about that. This invention is so powerful, so magnificent, that we can see it do its work all the way across the state.

Over the years, my family has made a quiet point of walking down to Coffee Pot Bayou to watch the shuttle lift off. It takes 21 seconds for the craft to rise above the horizon so we may see it. One Christmas season, we looked heavenward when its orbit brought it overhead, a bright star moving rapidly and deliberately over the sky. Here, then gone.

We've all changed in 17 years. I now have two sons, and it's much easier for me to understand as a father as well as a husband how Christa McAuliffe's husband felt, left alone in the world to rear two children. For him, a national tragedy was more profoundly a personal one.

That's how it will be for the families of these astronauts, all of them in their 40s, as am I. They are in that sandwich generation, and as such, they leave children without parents, and they leave parents without children.

As I watched this newest tragedy unfold on a small TV screen in a piano store manager's office Saturday morning, I thought back 17 years. Then I listened to the boys' recital. As the notes drifted off toward heaven, they seemed haunting, melodic, mysterious. I wondered how quickly the nation and its people would return to the business of normal life.

Just right now, a regular day seems more important than ever.

-- Jim Verhulst is suburban editor of the St. Petersburg Times.

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