Remembering Challenger

If you see the July 7 Pooch Cafe strip online, you will notice a large space in the final panel. The version that was published in my local paper included the following “punch line.”

They’re about to have a Challenger disaster right into that hot dog stand.

The fact that the line isn’t in the online version means that someone complained about it before I did. And I hope they didn’t try to print that in the Concord Monitor, the paper of Christa McAuliffe’s hometown.

I’m not coming down on cartoonist Paul Gilligan about this because every communicator at some point has made a bad call about what is acceptable or not. I’ve been guilty of that myself. Perhaps we all should offer a mea culpa for forgetting the event that Gilligan commented about.

Today, Challenger seems trivial compared to 9/11 and Iraq, and Columbia reminded us again of the dangers of spaceflight. But for us who watched those horrible images played on TVs again and again, Challenger was an event we will never forget. For me personally, Challenger was a harbinger of major changes in my life.

The mid-1980s were a time of recovery and growing confidence for me as an individual as well as for our country. I struggled through the early eighties working my way through college. This was during a recession and government cuts to education and social services. By mid-decade, things had improved. The economy was growing, and the L.A. Olympics gave us a renewed sense of national pride. The personal computer industry was growing, and offered me a way to make a living. In 1985, I graduated from college and got my first full-time job working as a technical writer. As the song said, the future was so bright, I had to wear shades.

Challenger shook us from our collective cockiness. Our success in space lulled us into complacency. We had become so indifferent about space travel that only CNN covered the launch live, at a time when cable wasn’t as commonplace as it is today. Those of us who told Shuttle jokes back then had the excuse that it helped us deal with the shock.

But what hit us the most about Challenger was Christa McAuliffe. We may not be able to connect emotionally with Air Force pilots and mission specialists, but all of us – if we are lucky – have had a teacher who touched our lives the way Christa affected her students. Her students’ loss was our loss.

For me, Challenger was also a sign of major changes that happened to me during 1986. That year, my father died, and the company that gave me my first full-time job found itself unable to make the payroll. I found another job in Orange County, and within a few months, I moved away from the home and community where I lived most of my life.

Challenger reminded us that we should never take success for granted and that sudden, dramatic change can happen at any time. This lesson is especially important in our 9/11 world.

So, perhaps Paul Gilligan should get some credit for making us remember Challenger and that even after 21 years, Shuttle jokes still are tasteless.