Things Seen

The evening was waxing on into the late hours, the breeze through the windows starting to cool instead of being stiflingly hot. A pie sat untouched on the table as everyone attempted to digest the remains of dinner and minds turned to stories in the distant and not so distant past. Our memories always seem stronger and more vivid with the smell of wine in the air and the lingering dust of a robust dinner argument that peters out into nothing and refuses to resolve itself.

‘I was working with search and rescue then,’ he said, talking about his experiences leaving water in the desert for immigrants and finding the dead. ‘I remember that night, we were camping way out in the desert, no light pollution, just us under the stars, and then in the morning, ‘Look!’ I said. ‘That’s the biggest fucking shooting star I’ve ever seen!’ and it was, it was huge. It was incredible, just…amazing, you don’t even have words to describe it, streaking across the desert. Wasn’t until later that we hiked out and found out what it was. The space shuttle.’

How does the perception of memory change when you know what you were seeing? A shooting star becomes a shuttle disaster, an amazing natural process becomes the death of seven astronauts, something strange and remarkable seen alone in the desert becomes the source of attention for an entire nation and a good chunk of the world, a story you tell at dinner seven years later because people are always hungry for your memories.

I remember where I was on the morning of the disaster; in the utterly dull and soulless confines of the Burlington Airport, stranded in a sea of puce carpeting and exhausted travelers, reading the newspapers after a week without any news at all, and there it was on the screens around the room, the space shuttle disintegrating right in front of my eyes, just like the Challenger. I got the boarding call for my plane and I thought ‘of all the places I could be right now, it’s filing onto a metal tube to be hurled above the surface of the earth at high speed,’ and, of course, one of my layovers was in Texas and I wondered, superstitiously, about the wisdom of following the tracks of the shuttle.

It’s funny, you know, how many times the shuttle took off while nothing happened, but what we remember are the accidents, those rare incidents, the cascade of circumstances leading to something going horrifically wrong, what we remember are these handful of events. In the history of the space program, really, not that many things have gone wrong, if you look at the sheer volume of work they’ve done, but we remember the Challenger and the Columbia and Apollo 13 and they have become, culturally, a very familiar shorthand and a sobering reminder of the perils of the final frontier.

‘I don’t know,’ someone said at the table, ‘when I go out, I wouldn’t mind going out like that. It must have been just instant, you know.’

Was it? I can think of few things more terrifying than the idea of being in the shuttle and knowing that things were going catastrophically wrong, knowing what was coming up next and being unable to do anything about it. 10 minutes? Five minutes? Two minutes? It must have seemed like an eternity. Sometimes I have dreams about being trapped like that and even though it lasts for a fraction of a second and it’s all in my subconscious, it’s the most stark, animal terror I have ever experienced.

Once seen, things cannot be unseen. People who happened to be in the desert that morning certainly can’t erase the experience from their minds. What would it be like, I wonder, to have that as one of your earliest memories, the memory of going to watch the shuttle go by and having it just blow apart right there in a breathless blue sky, trailing debris and smoke and contrails, vaporizing everything inside except some worms in some canisters; what kind of world do we live in where worms make it safely back from space and people don’t, where we can build petri dishes tough enough to withstand the breakup of the space shuttle and the people inside don’t have a chance.

The danger of the space program is perhaps part of its great seduction; I could not help but feel a frisson every time the shuttle took off after that, once the hiatus was over, even though I didn’t know anyone on board and was only tangentially connected to them, in the sense that I paid the taxes that funded the program that shot them off into space, and perhaps might, someday, benefit from the research the people on board were doing, but the space program is much more a symbol than a practicality.

Now, we’re reduced to hitching rides with the Russians, a far cry from the heyday of the space program, and I wonder what people who were active in the program during the Cold War must think of that, of taking trips to the International Space Station with Russian astronauts in Russian spacecraft because we killed our shuttle program. Spaceflight means something. It’s full of possibility. Even though I’ve long since realised I won’t be going to the moon or Mars or anywhere else beyond our atmosphere, it’s a promise of something and it’s a symbol and when that symbol comes crashing to earth we confront some of our darkest fears.

Stories seen cannot be unseen and I spent that day whisking across the continental United States and thinking about the shuttle and the people on it, wondering if our pilot was thinking about it too and maybe remembering another day in the not so distant past when four planes took off one sunny September morning and didn’t come back to earth intact.