Today, January 28, 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger which took the life of 7 astronauts: Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith A. Resnik, Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Ronald E. McNair, Mike J. Smith, and Ellison S. Onizuka, may their memory be for a blessing.
I remember that day very well and the one thing that sticks in my mind is that I didn’t know about the disaster until 3 hours after it took place. I was out to lunch with a colleague at the time and with no cell phones and no internet, no one told me and I had no way of knowing until I happened to turn on the news later that day. Can you imagine that happening today?
But, that incidental fact aside, the explosion of the Challenger affected me personally very deeply. I have always been a “space nut” and, as you will see below, I like so many were not only saddened but deeply emotionally affected by the tragedy. Here is (with a few minor edits), the sermon I delivered on Friday evening, January 31, 1986 at Congregation Beth Israel Lansdale, Pennsylvania.
God said to Abraham: Lech Lecha Mayartzecha. Leave your land and travel to the new land that I will show you. Several times this year I have attempted to teach why I feel that this verse symbolizes the entire mission of the Jewish people. From our earliest beginnings, we were commanded to travel, commanded to find new spiritual understandings and to deepen our relationship with God.
And, if the simple words lech lecha symbolize the Jew, then the equally simple words of Horace Greely, in the early 19th century, symbolize the American: “Go west young man, go west”. Travel not necessarily for spiritual growth but because there was an empty space begging to be filled, a new experience waiting to be share, a new frontier beckoning to be explored.
And throughout our history, we did go west…and north and south and east. And, in our day, up. And, not only with our young men as Greely called for, but with young women, older adults, elected officials. And, this week, for the first time, with you and me. For Christa McAuliffe represented no only the teachers of America but she represented all of us- all of us who have dreamed of space travel but whose physical limitations or scientific ignorance kept us earthbound. She represented every one of us who ever imagined that the dashboard of the car was an instrument panel and the long, lonely highway was the outer reaches of space as we maneuvered our craft to discover new worlds.
Each time a space flight began, we were riveted to the TV screen. We did get blasé at times, but we never got tired of seeing the awesome power of the launch, the beauty of the horizon silhouetted against the blackness of space, the amazing mechanical feats performed at zero gravity, and the flawless landings- so graceful, so awe inspiring, and always right on the money. We always dreamed we were on board and this time, we were really going.
Of course, there had been problems before: capsules had sunk, engines burned out, Apollo 13 suffered an explosion, heat shields hung precariously through re-entry, but it all had always come out A-OK. The one horrible exception, the terrible fire on Apollo 1 which took the lives of astronauts Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White had taken place on the ground and there was no live TV- this was altogether different.
Seven individuals, each representing a section of America: black and white, Jew and Gentile, protest and and Catholic, male and female. And a bit of us died with them.
These 7 memorial candles are lit for those 7 pioneers. We grieve for their families, for their friends who loved them, who needed them; and who will not even be able to bury them.
Tuesday night, I sat glued to the TV and saw my heroes parade before the cameras. You know that I am a sports fan but my heroes growing up were not Yastrzemski and Mantle and Maris and Mays but they were Shepard and Grissom and Glenn. And, on this night, the heroes of my youth paraded before the cameras. And everyone of them said exactly the same thing: “We knew this was going to happen someday, and it is amazing that it took 26 years”.
Those astronauts and reporters admitted something that bears repeating, now that the initial shock is beginning to wear off. Make no mistake about it, despite the smiles and the playful jokes and the steak and eggs breakfasts with everyone laughing, despite all of these, every astronaut knew that they were being placed on the top of a bomb and that someday, without warning, the bomb would go off.
And because they knew that, because they willingly put themselves on top of that “Roman Candle” the astronauts passed from being merely private individuals to being common property, entrusted with billions of our tax dollars and more importantly with our priceless dreams. When they put on that uniform, they became instruments of our instinct to discover and accepted that risk willingly.
All of the astronauts knew the risk even if we forgot it or ignored it. And no one in NASA was shocked with this explosion. Saddened, no question. Distraught with sadness. But they were not shocked because they knew it would happen someday.
And that is why NASA needs only to investigate what went wrong. We have to do another thing. We have to learn for ourselves what NASA has known for the past 26 years and more.
There is only one source of perfection in this world. And when an imperfect being builds a machine, it can not be a perfect machine. No matter how many times it is used. Our intelligence is limitless but it is imperfect; our machines are amazing but they are not perfect.
In a few moments, we will say the el maley rachamim prayer, the prayer recited at times of loss. Words written centuries ago sound as if they were written yesterday; “God grant rest under the shelter of you being to those who shine like the brightness of the heavens”. This prayer reminds us always that the works of human beings, and our very lives, are temporary. All we can do is strive to be the best we can be and hold onto our belief in the one perfect being.
Someone asked me yesterday: Where was God? I saw God’s presence on Tuesday evening. I walked out to look the stars as I always do and there, on the horizon, was an almost full moon- so bright so round, just a bit of darkened in deference to our suffering. A moon that was close that you could reach out and touch it. As long as the moon is so close that we can touch it, as long as the stars shine so bright that we can reach for them, as long as there remain oceans and comets and mountains for us to explore, we will continue to explore. We will suffer at times for it but we must continue. The ancient human being who rubbed two sticks together one morning probably burned himself the first time. But, he must have picked up the sticks again or you and I would not be here tonight.
Science Fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a story called Kaleidoscope. In this story, a space ship explodes, sending the astronauts hurtling towards the earth. Just before their death, they talk to each other by radio about their hopes for the world. One of them worries that he has not accomplished anything good in the world and then realizes he is about to become a shooting star and hopes that someone will see him. The story ends with a young boy on a country road, looking up to see a shooting star. His mother says; “Make a wish, my son, make a wish.”
There are 7 new shooting stars in the sky. While the horrible agony of their fiery death still is fixed in our minds, we make a wish that the 7 families will be comforted among those who mourn throughout the world. And we make a wish for ourselves that we keep reaching, keep exploring, keep searching.
We owe it to the 7. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to God who left us here on earth with the ability to reach for the stars. We owe it to all of them to keep looking up.
May the memory of the Challenger 7 be for a blessing thirty years later and always.