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Posted: July 10, 2011 12:30 a.m.

Harwell: “Ave Atque Vale!”

I remember the sunrise on a crisp, cold Tuesday some 25 years ago.

My wife and I were both teaching at old Sharp Middle School, and were renting one of our fondest memories at 6107 Floyd St., next door to one of the grandest couples who ever graced Covington, the late Charlie and Audrey Smith.

My wife had already gone to school in our 1971 Oldsmobile Delta 88, the springs of which had long since given up to produce a "low rider." My mother had arrived to babysit our kids, and I paused in the driveway to breathe in the fresh morning air as I watched the fat orange orb climb into the crystal clear, cobalt blue sky.

It was January 28, 1986. I continued to watch the sunrise in the mirror through the huge rear window of my 1973 AMC Gremlin as I traversed Newton Drive toward Sharp.

It was a beautiful day for a space shuttle launch. As one who had applied for her seat on shuttle mission STS-51-L, I knew that by now Christa McAuliffe, NASA's first "teacher in space," had already strapped into the orbiter named - appropriately - Challenger.

We weren't far into the school day when came a most surprising announcement. All Newton County schools were being dismissed, immediately, for a remarkable reason: the pipe supplying water to Newton County Comprehensive High School had broken. NCCHS could not provide lunch for students, nor restroom facilities. In '86 there existed but one high school in the county, and the bus fleet was tied to a complicated pattern involving it, the two middle schools and five elementary schools. If any one school had to dismiss, they all did.

I remember walking into our house and flipping on the television, and, as the picture came on, hearing the NASA communicator, or CAPCOM, call out: "Challenger, you are go at throttle up."

Mike Smith, the pilot, answered: "Roger, go at throttle up."

The picture was clear by now. I'd settled into a chair to await "SRB sep" in another minute or so, when the solid rocket boosters would be separated at about 2:16 into the flight. But something was just not right with the picture. I could see the SRBs twisting away from the shuttle way too soon. And there was an ominous, huge white cloud in the center of the picture tube.

And, just like that, I knew Challenger was gone. Dumbstruck, I watched the events of the next few days unfold. And ever since, my heart catches in my throat whenever I hear "go at throttle up."

My wife had been selected to participate in NASA's Educational Workshop for Math And Science Teachers (NEWMAST) at the Kennedy Space Center in the summer of 1986. As it turned out, KSC shut down for nearly two years as the Rogers Commission investigated the Challenger disaster. The NEWMAST program, however, convened as scheduled. And, as a result of the ongoing investigation, my wife's group was granted spectacular "behind the scenes" access which would otherwise never have transpired.

Both of us have enjoyed lasting relationships with NASA folks over the intervening decades, formed from a bond of shared loss and cemented in a devotion to those who dared put out their hand and touch the face of God that January morning in 1986.

We've attended subsequent launches and reunions and treasure meeting Gene Thomas, launch director for the Challenger flight and the only person not only found blameless by the Commission, but subsequently promoted to director of shuttle operations.

Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik and Christa McAuliffe still live in my heart, as do those who perished when Columbia broke apart over Texas in 2003.

And now I'm again dumbstruck to behold the sunrise of a day - following the current mission of Atlantis to the International Space Station - in which America will have no way to launch humans into space.

Yes, I remember that crisp, cold January morning in 1986. I remember President Reagan's remark that though the Challenger is lost, the challenge remains. And I, along with the world, have reaped the benefits gleaned from America's manned space flight programs.

Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White perished in a fire while training for Apollo 1. They, and the entire company of astronauts, advanced mankind's body of knowledge, exponentially, over the course of one human lifetime. America entered, and now exits, manned space flight in a time frame covering barely 50 years.

To these brave souls offer I the words of Roman poet Gaius Valerius Catullus, "Ave Atque Vale!" Roughly translated, it's "Hail and Farewell!"

And I wonder, who will now go where no one has gone before? And just when - and how - will that be?

Nat Harwell is a Covington resident. His column appears Sundays.

 

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