Call it a good idea gone bad. Say the road to hell is paved with good intentions, or that no good deed goes unpunished.
Tellingly, it was my Facebook feed that reminded me last week of the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. Why my Facebook feed? Because people were remembering (reminiscing probably isn't the right word here) where they were when the shuttle blew up.
It's a bit amazing, if not surprising, that we all remember this moment due not to the magnitude of the tragedy (yes, it was a tragedy, but remember that only seven people died: more people died in 2009's Metro accident), nor to its consequences, but simply to the presence of television cameras. (Don't believe me? Where were you when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City blew up? You probably don't remember, do you?)
I'm sorry if this sounds harsh, because of course this was indeed a tragedy for the astronauts and their families (not to mention NASA), but in the public consciousness this moment has more in common with the O.J. Simpson verdict than it does with the likes of the Kennedy assassination and September 11.
I told my wife that, 25 years later, I much better appreciate the irony. Seriously, readers, how many other NASA launches have you watched live? Yeah, me neither.
Sending a teacher into space was an absolutely brilliant idea, and I say that with 100% sincerity. Because whatever effect it was going to have on the public in general, whatever effect it was going to have on kids, TEACHERS across the land were totally fucking geeked. That means they were first going to try to be Christa McAuliffe (at least one teacher of mine was among the many who applied), and when that didn't work then they would be inspired by Christa McAuliffe, and then inevitably they would decide that the kids they taught would be inspired, too.
We weren't much for current events in my elementary school, as I recall. I used to think of our principal - imagine white hair religiously colored black, and flagpole inserted firmly up ass - as a female Ronald Reagan of sorts (don't ask, I was young: they were both old, both in charge of stuff, both liked to talk, both dressed up all the time, and both seemed strict), but that's as close as it came.
In my school, we were much more into the explorers (covered every frigging year between second and sixth grade), being forced to square-dance in gym, librarians who yelled at you if you were in fourth grade and took out a fifth grade book (not that I'm still bitter, especially since I'll bet you dollars to donuts she's long dead), some of the most incredibly boring textbooks ever written, and being kept inside on the day there was a solar eclipse.
So imagine what it took to disrupt my sixth grade math class with an honest-to-God television (fuck! did they even know about those newfangled contraptions in school?) wheeled into the room on one of those utility carts so we could - no, not do more pre-algebra problems - but watch the Challenger launch live, and my math teacher could wish it was him on-board (he had been one of those who'd applied, though I doubt he'd gotten real far in the process).
We all remember the Challenger accident not just because we watched people die on live TV (though of course we saw nothing graphic) but, even more, because we got to watch our teachers' horrified reactions. My memory's a little spotty, but I seem to recall that what ensued was our school's equivalent of pandemonium, with the class running down the hall to the other sixth grade classrooms shouting that the Challenger had exploded. And why were we allowed to do this? Best I can guess: our teacher wanted the other teachers to know.
Honest but embarrassing admission: I was mostly excited that this experience was so far outside of our stultifyingly tedious normal everyday routine.
You know, whenever I hear people talk about space exploration as inspiring, it always seems like a dated reference. In other words, even when I was a kid, I never really got it and figured I was just too young, kind of like when people would talk about Nixon or Vietnam or the Beatles, people and things I only vaguely understood but knew that: a) they inspired strong feelings, and b) they were before my time. I never quite got why launching rockets (or dogs, or monkeys, or people, or even teachers) into space was supposed to be inspirational, why it was more awesome than other science or many non-science things.
That NASA set up this potentially huge moment to inspire a new generation of kids (or at least their teachers, for what it's worth) and then totally blew it in the worst way possible is kind of sad but also kind of funny.
And I can't help but consider the counterfactual: who would remember where they were when the Challenger launched if it hadn't blown up? Not me, but quite possibly my teacher.