Saturday, January 28, 2012

TDIH: 'High In the Sunlit Silence...'

On this day in 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a mere seventy-three seconds after lift off. It remains a moment that few Americans have forgotten who were alive to witness the event, either in person or as it was being broadcast on television.

In the days that followed the tragedy, Idaho was one of the first states to order the lowering of flags in honor of the six astronauts and one New Hampshire school teacher whose lives were lost. Congressman Richard Stallings, then representing Idaho's second congressional district, had been serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for just over a year and was interviewed by many Idaho-based media outlets about the tragedy. As a freshman representative and throughout his four terms in office, Stallings served on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Many of the oversight responsibilities retained by Congress to investigate what went wrong with Challenger fell to the Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Applications, one of two Science, Space and Technology subcommittees that Stallings served on (the other being the Subcommittee on Energy, Research, and Development).

I wasn't quite nine months old when the Challenger exploded moments after lift off. I don't have any of my own memories of watching the tragedy, but I've listened to Congressman Stallings discuss Challenger and the connection between the shuttle and the Idaho National Laboratory (INEL at the time of the explosion) many times. When I ran across the material in the Stallings Papers about the disaster as well as the investigation that ensued, I was in awe. One of the first items I found was this piece that was part of a NASA presentation given to the subcommittee that was investigating the Challenger disaster:

It is one of the many items throughout the Stallings Papers that brought my processing to a halt. It was a sobering moment to consider the pressure on NASA and those conducting the investigation to ensure that such a tragedy was not repeated. We don't tend to think about the magnitude of congressional committee work and how the decisions made by the members of those committees will impact history. Without identifying what went wrong on this day in 1986, the space program itself may have ended.

On the back of the Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery is the famous poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. "Put out my hand and touched the face of God" is often quoted in connection with this day, but when I think of this day I think of a less quoted phrase of Magee's: "High in the sunlit silence..." High in the sunlit silence of that January day, from Florida to New Hampshire to even Idaho, Americans from all over this country tuned in to watch an endeavor that the twentieth century will forever be remembered for and instead witnessed tragedy.

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The above images are contained in the Richard H. Stallings Papers at Idaho State University and are used with permission of the Department of Special Collections. The photo of Congressman Stallings can be found in Series I: The Washington Papers, Box 20, Folder 1. All material related to the Challenger disaster is contained in Series I, Box 40, Folders 13-15.

1 comment:

Sean Riley said...

I was in my 8th grade Social Studies class when my teacher got word about the explosion. Stunned silence. I remember how routine space shuttle journeys had become. It just reminded us all that for all the pageantry and wonder there will always be an inherent peril attached to the space program. Just like with any great endeavor.