Sunday, January 29, 2006

Remembrance Season

It's Remembrance Season.

Ten days ago was the eleventh anniversary of the Great Hanshin Earthquake, which killed more than 6,400 people in and around Kobe. We were down there visiting friends last year, and saw some of the memorials; the scale of the tragedy was immense.

Friday was the sixty-first anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, ending one of the darkest events in human history.

Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. At the time, I was a student at Caltech. Usually, but not always, I was in the habit of watching shuttle launches and landings. (My dad took my sister and me to see the first launch in 1981, and I had organized a group of students to go see a landing at Edwards Air Force Base the year before.) This particular time, I had forgotten about the launch, but I had my alarm set to the radio, and it happened to go off a few minutes after the explosion. I rushed down to our house tv lounge, where there were already a few people gathered. We watched as long as we could, then went through the motions of the day, stunned and empty. I had a job interview that morning; I recall not a thing about it, not even the name of the company or type of business they were in.

A day or two later, the basketball team had a game; someone (Ed Zanelli, I think) made sure the team members had black bands for their uniforms in remembrance.

Of course, a significant number of Techers aspire to be astronauts, me included; a few have actually made it (Harrison Schmidt, the geologist, even walked on the moon). But the accident had a more practical impact than postponing such dreams. One company I had interviewed with did aerospace work, and immediately put its hiring plans on hold. In a less anticipated fashion, it took Feynman away. I was taking his class on computing systems, and he was co-teaching it that year with Sandy Frey; after the famous "Dr. Feynman goes to Washington", we got to see very little of him, and Sandy took over most of the teaching.

Space afficianados know that this is the season not just of Challenger but all of the major U.S. disasters:

  • January 27, 1967: Apollo 1, which took the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.
  • January 28, 1986: STS51-L (Challenger); Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, Sharon Christa McAuliffe.
  • February 1, 2003: STS-107 (Columbia); Rick D. Husband, William C. McCool, Michael P. Anderson, Kalpana Chawla, David M. Brown, Laurel B. Clark, Ilan Ramon.

May we somehow, someday, be worthy of the sacrifices they made and the risks they, and the other astronauts from all countries, took and continue to take.


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