Saturday, January 28, 2012

Challenger 26


Today is the 26th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. One brief memory:

I had left astronomy a few years earlier and was teaching school when it happened.  I only knew one of the astronauts, Dr. Ron McNair.

In the late 70s I was lecturing in space science at the California Museum of Science and Industry.  One day, my college buddy, musician Joe Ransfer stopped by for a visit.  We chatted and he told me "There's this guy I know who's a lot like you and I want you two to meet.  Dr. Ronald McNair".

McNair was working as a physicist at Hughes Research Labs out in Malibu.  Coincidentally, the computer-savvy among us on staff were using a terminal (unknown to management) in the museum basement to hack into Hughes Research regularly.  Not to steal anything. Mostly to see whatever the physicist/science-fiction author Robert Forward was working on and leave him messages how to better secure his account.

McNair also played sax and Joe wanted to get us together to play some "cosmic slop" as well.
When we chatted, I skillfully neglected to mention my youthful hacking indiscretions to Dr. McNair.  He asked what I wanted to do and I replied galactic astronomy was my thing.    We talked about the shuttle program which was pretty behind schedule.  I had the opportunity to visit the first "drop test" of shuttle Enterprise out at Dryden.  It was cool, but I was definitely a part of the robotic space exploration camp.  We resented all the budget dollars going into manned space.

He was only a few years older than me but spoke to me in a fatherly way and gave me the appropriate advice to dream big and get out there and do it, the implication being life is short.

A few years later, he flew as a mission specialist aboard STS-41B (Challenger), launching satellites and controlling the manipulator (that big robotic arm).

Ronald McNair lost his life 26 years ago today when the Shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Atlantic on STS-51-L.  He had planned on doing a live sax recording from space with composer Jean-Michel Jarre.

On a visit back to L.A. about 10 years ago I ran into Joe's uncle who informed me he had passed away while sitting at home one day from an un-diagnosed heart problem.

Of the three of us, I'm the only one remaining.  And while here, I'm dreaming big and getting out there.  Because, no matter how much of it you get, life is short.

1 comment:

Angela said...

How wonderful for you to be included in Ron's life and to give tribute to him.
You will go far and not because to touched elbows with anybody who's anybody, but because you are you a giving,thoughtful person.

-Angela