American Impressions, Chapter 13: New Hampshire
Stars in Space: From Alan Shepard to Christa McAuliffe
Planetariums all look basically alike. They’re big domes that double as ceiling screens, where an approximation of space’s billions and billions are projected in light and colors. Sound comes from behind the screen—from the dome’s outer-space. Some planetariums call their outer-space attics, as does the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in Concord , New Hampshire . It is in that attic, behind the curves of the planetarium’s dome and next to immense speakers that amplify tales from the heavens on a regular schedule throughout the day, that about 15 cardboard boxes full of personal tributes to McAuliffe and the six astronauts of the Challenger have been packed away, 13 years after the explosion of the space shuttle.
The people who sit below the planetarium’s night sky replicas don’t know about the boxes. Most of them are children born after the disaster, like Hailey O’Connor and her three brothers and sisters. “But they know this is Christa McAuliffe’s ‘place,’ “ their mother, Joy O’Connor, says. “They know that she died, they know that she was a teacher. They know when we come here that it’s Christa McAuliffe’s,” especially since the O’Connors come from Londonderry , a short hop from where Alan Shepard, New Hampshire ’s other space hero, was born.
The O’Connors make the 30-mile trip to Concord frequently, not because any of the children want to be astronauts (they’d rather be heart surgeons and dancers and veterinarians) but because going to the planetarium and checking out the latest beams from space resembles the routine pleasure of going to an amusement park to check out the latest rides. The O’Connor children have never known the fascination of space as a “new frontier,” only the expectation that sooner or later the sky would be theirs.
”Sometime when I’m in my 30s I think we could have some people living on the moon,” Ryan O’Connor, who’s verging on her teens, says matter-of-factly.
The moon is too easy, Hailey, 8, tells her. “We’ll be able to go to Mars by then and maybe even go to some other planet.” She doesn’t mean in unmanned Voyager-type flights, but in the sort of “planes” she compares to the shuttle.
When I ask Ryan if she’d be willing to go on a planetary flight, her reply is as pragmatic as her awareness of the emptiness of space: “If we could have some of the activities we have at home and I could bring some of my friends along, then I might like it. Otherwise, no.”
McAuliffe would have liked the O’Connor children’s attitude. In an interview with NASA that proved to be one of the reasons she was chosen for the Challenger flight, McAuliffe had spoken of the opportunity to “share the space age, which right now is kind of removed. We only see little clips of it in the newspaper, and we really don’t understand the whole ramifications of what’s going to happen in the next 20 years.”
It’s not that children like the O’Connors understand the ramifications of space travel. They don’t need to. They assume that they will understand when the time comes, the way they quickly master a new computer game or their way around “Star Pilot,” the shuttle flight simulator at the planetarium. They relate to McAuliffe’s goal the way they relate to their own teacher (a picture of McAuliffe hangs in Ryan’s classroom). So without reaching space, McAuliffe has taught children a lesson she probably didn’t think possible—to take space for granted. But the achievement stands in spite, not because, of NASA.
I’d come to New Hampshire to look at America’s space legacy because the state claims as its own the two people who begin and end NASA’s best years in space—Alan Shepard, who, in 1961, heralded the glory of the nation’s space age, and McAuliffe, whose life in 1986 was claimed by a broken space program.
Both were pioneers, although McAuliffe, I think, more than Shepard: Shepard was merely the first American in space, his 15-minute flight coming 23 days after the Soviet Union ’s Yuri Gagarin’s complete earth orbit. McAuliffe was to be the first civilian in space—“ordinary” was the word often used in 1986 -- a feat arguably as extraordinary as Gagarin’s had been 25 years before.
But they represented different eras—or rather, different dangers. Shepard’s flight easily could have failed. It was hurried along by Cold War fever and a succession of humiliating American defeats—Sputnik, Gagarin, and the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba , which occurred a few days after Gagarin’s orbit. Space back then was a war zone. Victory meant universal prestige. Nothing, certainly not recent history or NASA’s youth as an agency, augured success, which is why Shepard’s flight was such a national boost of self-confidence. Days later, Kennedy announced his goal to send men to the moon.
By the time McAuliffe flew, the Soviet Union was almost bankrupt and had long conceded defeat in space. The United States was exploring the outer fringes of the solar system and NASA’s shuttles were allegedly turning space exploration into a fancy commute. Nothing augured failure, except NASA’s sense of infallibility.
”Even in post-Watergate cynicism,” wrote Robert Hohler in his biography of Christa McAuliffe, “the media still had room for a sacred cow, and NASA was it. Instead of pressing reporters to probe the nuts and bolts of the space program, editors, sensing the resurgence of heroism in the ‘80s, preferred stories that portrayed the people who explored the heavens as larger than life. No one was fooled by NASA’s plan to send a teacher in space. The idea was to light a fire under millions of Americans who had begun to consider shuttle flights routine, and the media were ready to strike the match.”
The explosion of the Challenger came next.
I walked around the planetarium’s outer-space attic, wondering what boxes to look into. There were posters, framed pictures of the astronauts, a purple, imitation-silk pillow in the shape of a heart with glued newspaper pictures of McAuliffe and her crew. There were audio and video tapes, and reams of letters and poems. One box of letters was arranged in legal folders, by states of origin, with one folder devoted to the rest of the world, and one devoted to “unknown” addresses.
”I hope you will not feel that I am intruding from the wrong motives into what must be a period of intense shock and mourning for you and your school,” a retired schoolteacher wrote from London , addressing her letter, as are most of the writings, to the principal and students of Concord High School , where McAuliffe was a teacher.
”For the kids of Concord High,” wrote Karen Dombrowski: “All of you don’t know me, and most probably none of you will ever know me. But I feel somehow ‘related’ to you because I too attend Concord High School . Not in New Hampshire , U.S.A. , but in Sydney , Australia .”
And on went the attempts at empathy and condolences from strangers to strangers, still as familiar a vortex of grief as those images of the Challenger ripping apart 73 seconds into its flight on Jan. 28, 1986 . Like the letters sent to Buckingham Palace after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, but on a smaller scale, the letters sent to Concord High show how deeply, and maybe excessively, a huge number of ordinary people felt connected to someone they did not know except through the carefully scripted celebrity image NASA made of Christa McAuliffe. The space agency had spent a year constructing an American hero on the contradictory premise of her ordinariness, a Diana in reverse (Diana’s image-makers spent years constructing an ordinary person out of a princess). The women’s handlers were very successful. The public fell for both. When they died, people felt robbed.
Reopening those boxes and reading their contents was very much an intrusion. It was distasteful journalistically and personally, like desecrating a grave of memories, although obviously not enough to keep me from desecrating on. I was looking for words of blame. But it was striking how, without exception that I could see, the letters and poems sent in McAuliffe’s memory were devoid of the slightest accusation directed at NASA, or existential posturing at Creation. If anything—between children’s rainbow-colored drawings of felicity and poems titled “The Sun Will Rise Again,” “The Chosen Seven,” “Life Goes On”—the writings inclined toward fatalism, often crediting God for doing what God will, or, even more often, as one writer put it, conceding that “some things happen that can never be explained.”
It was just as striking to read the report of the Rogers Commission, which Ronald Reagan appointed to investigate the disaster, and note to what extent the Challenger explosion could be explained and NASA precisely and blisteringly faulted for having known about the faulty O-rings since the second shuttle flight in 1981. The agency had convinced itself, flight after flight, that the problem was nothing to worry about, thus embracing as policy the “normalization of deviance,” as Diane Vaughan termed it in her 1996 book, “The Challenger Launch Decision.”
The contrast between the tone of the letters written in McAuliffe’s memory and that of the Rogers Commission report, which was really the government’s official appendix to the letters, point to a different sort of deviance altogether. Fighting for relevance in the eyes of an indifferent public and a skeptical scientific community, NASA, no longer producing heroes by way of heroic achievements, chose to produce them by way of marketing. NASA, in other words, needed McAuliffe more than McAuliffe needed NASA. Only McAuliffe lived up to her end of the bargain.
For years, many of the letters and other tributes sent in McAuliffe’s name had formed one of the main displays at the planetarium. It eventually came down because the place doesn’t want to be seen as a memorial. “We get calls every January 28 from people asking us how we’re commemorating the day,” says Jeanne Gerulskis, the planetarium’s executive director. “We’re not. We never do.”
”We’re working. That’s how we commemorate her legacy,” says Jan Derby, the education program specialist.
But the planetarium hasn’t been given much to work with. Try as it may—its displays are impeccable and inviting, its planetarium shows dazzling—there aren’t many stories it tells beyond shuttle missions, pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, a model of the planned International Space Station, and a reversion to the history of exploration in the time of “The golden age of Arabic astronomy.”
The word most often used about NASA’s space program today is “recovered.” But the picture from the McAuliffe planetarium is not as reassuring. To visitors, NASA is still the focus, its arm-patches still perceived as America ’s visa into space. But that’s the problem: NASA’s horizon is narrow and dull, and scientifically moribund.
NASA manages to get attention only when it falls back on celebrity missions. In the summer of 1997 the Mars “Rover” was a hit because NASA turned the little machine into a cartoon character with a crush on rocks named “Wedge,” “Shark,” “Yogi” and “Barnacle Bill.” And with John Glenn’s return to space last year, NASA won a 73 percent approval rating (up from a low of 43 percent in 1993). But it is doubtful that many people remember a single scientific finding from either of these missions—or any of the missions since the Challenger exploded. Putting stars in space isn’t changing that.
Neither will putting an elephant up there, although the International Space Station is as good an example of NASA’s irrelevance as any. Scientists and astronomers have been fighting each other to ridicule the $40 billion thing (or $100 billion thing, depending on whose estimate you trust) for being, as one writer put it in The New York Times, “little more than a Motel 6 in low Earth orbit, and . . . a step toward the stars only in the sense that cleaning out your attic gets you closer to the moon.” In sum, the $17 billion agency is a tired relic, and space is passing it by.
But space cannot have become dull for being commonplace. NASA’s incomprehensible missions aside, astronomers’ revelations have been tantalizing, whether from the monthly discovery of new planetary systems or the impending discovery of the edge of the universe and the beginning of time. Factor in the Internet as the natural interpretive medium of the new space age and NASA’s role is diminished that much more. As I’m writing this on a computer, I’m able to toggle between my word processing screen and a connection to various Web pages on the Internet, where I can see Hubble’s latest pictures of evidence of water on Mars, hundreds of just-released spy satellite pictures of nuclear installations in Russia, and reports not much different from shipping news at the turn of the century, except that the vessels leaving port are satellite-bearing rockets, and a majority of them are being launched outside America. Because of the space shuttle’s lost promise, NASA has yielded 52 percent of the satellite-launching market to Europe ’s and Russia ’s cheaper alternatives. If space isn’t quite becoming democratized yet, its portals are vanishing at the speed of mouse-clicks. Even McAuliffe’s achievement is receding into quaintness, like Shepard’s whacking of golf balls on the moon.
”We grew up when it was news,” says Gerulskis, whose planetarium attracts about 68,000 visitors a year. “My son was born the year before the Challenger disaster. He doesn’t know that it’s unusual to go into space. He doesn’t know that a computer is unusual, that e-mailing a friend in Africa is unusual. In a way, it’s a measure of our success.”
But if NASA is lumbering into history, planetariums don’t have to follow. Keeping the McAuliffe Planetarium from being a memorial to Christa McAuliffe is the kind of inspired decision that should help lead to the next: jettisoning a vision of space as a NASA-centered universe.
At the request of McAuliffe’s family, the high school where she taught never took her name. When I dropped by I felt as I had when opening those boxes of letters—an intruder again. “It’s a tragedy that happened. Remembering it accomplishes nothing,” said Michael Garrett, an assistant principal who worked with McAuliffe for several years. He noted how reporters still forage around periodically, “bless their little black souls.”
Someone who’d given me directions to the high school had also thrown in directions to McAuliffe’s grave site, apparently a mild tourist spot. But after Garrett gracefully showed me around the area dedicated to McAuliffe’s memory—the school auditorium and its lobby, which have just been renovated—I knew I’d intruded enough. I thanked Garrett and drove to Vermont .
NEW HAMPSHIRE IN BRIEF
Total area: 9,283 sq. miles (rank: 44).
Population (1997): 1,172,709 (rank: 42).
Economy: High-tech, aerospace, tourism, mining, agriculture.
Nickname and motto: Granite State, Live free or die.
Entered union: One of the original 13 states; ratified Constitution, June 21, 1788.
Notable facts: New Hampshire’s workforce boasts the nation’s highest proportion of workers employed in high-tech jobs.
The state in quotes: “Alan Shepard was a person who believed totally in the American dream and who lived the American dream. He was an icon of our culture and clearly a dominant figure of our time. We will miss him. In New Hampshire, we will especially miss him because we are very proud of him. We are a small state. At that time we had less than 1 million people, and here it is, with less than 1 million people, we sent the first person into space and he was from New Hampshire. Great pride.”— U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., on the floor of the Senate, July 23, 1998.
Several biographies of Christa McAuliffe have appeared since 1986. These include “Christa McAuliffe: A Space Biography” by Laura S. Jeffrey (published in 1998) and “Beyond the Clouds: The Story of Christa McAuliffe,” by David Collins (Weaver Book, 1996). The books are all available, at discount, at www.amazon.com. Robert Hohler’s “ ‘I Touch the Future . . .’: The Story of Christa McAuliffe” (1986) is out of print, but Amazon can locate copies. Recent studies of the Challenger disaster in the larger context of NASA’s evolution include “No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative About the Challenger Accident and Our Time,” by Claus Jensen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996) and “The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA,” by Diane Vaughan (University of Chicago Press, 1996).
* Christa McAuliffe Planetarium: www.starhop.com
* The Challenger Center (especially valuable for kids and students): www.challenger.org
* NASA: www.nasa.gov
* Federation of American Scientists: (excellent links, including to the Rogers Commission report on the Challenger disaster): www.fas.org