Twenty years ago this week I was working as a writer/producer at the Society for Visual Education (SVE) in Chicago. It’s easy for me to pinpoint the day five years earlier when I interviewed for this job because it was the day that John Hinckley tried to assassinate Ronald Reagan: March 29, 1981. I was only 21 and had been working as a copy clerk/slave boy at the Chicago Tribune. This was my first real job interview after graduating from college and I was terrified. I think it was the first time I had a suit on since my Bar Mitzvah and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same suit. I arrived at SVE shaking in my earth shoes but the hubbub caused by the assassination attempt was a real ice breaker. The entire editorial staff at SVE was gathered around a TV set in the office watching the coverage and I joined in the discussions about the dramatic events in Washington. I shared with my future colleagues that John Kennedy’s funeral was my very first memory (when I was four), I speculated on how Hinckley’s obsession with Jodie Foster had led him to shoot the new president, and I groaned when Secretary of State Alexander Hague prematurely started telling anyone who would listen that he was in charge. Despite my complete lack of experience in education or publishing, I got the job.
SVE was a wonderful training ground. I still talk to some of the other writer/producers I worked with during those years who are now spread across the country working for such organizations as National Geographic, Deloitte & Touche, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and “America’s Most Wanted” TV show. We all agree now that our jobs at SVE provided us with an amazing amount of creative freedom even though we were working in the soon-to-be-obsolete medium of educational filmstrips. SVE had several licensed characters that we all wrote for. The star of this group was the Lollipop Dragon, a kindly green dragon who lived in the Kingdom of Tumtum with his orange girlfriend Apple Blossom and his friends Prince Hubert and Princess Gwendolyn. I wrote many adventures for the dragon, addressing a range of curriculum areas from geography to science to math. The nadir of my SVE career, however, was undoubtedly my 1984 homage to multicultural education: “Lollipop Dragon’s Adventures in Ethnic Pride.” I believe I still have those scripts in a box somewhere and I really need to find them to relive the horror. I shudder to think of the dialogue I had coming out of Tumtum’s African-American residents and I have a vague memory of Lollipop Dragon wearing a yarmulke and talking about Yom Kippur. Oy.
I also wrote for Slim Goodbody, a New York actor who wore a body suit that showed all of his internal organs, What-a-Mess, my favorite character who was a mangy Afghan puppy created by English author Frank Muir, and Ted E. Bear, an animated creature who was responsible for me eventually leaving SVE and moving to California to work on a TV series featuring Ted and the other residents of Bearbank (the show never made it to the air).
My favorite projects to work on were ones that involved social studies. I loved history in school and I’d never forgotten some of my more interesting assignments such as when our African-American high school teacher made us write persuasive papers defending slavery or when we simulated the Mideast Peace Talks in college and, as Jimmy Carter, I had to grapple with the conflicting demands of the Israelis and Palestinians. In 1985 I received the plum assignment of working with the Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam on an educational video. I got to travel to Amsterdam and wander around the attic by myself after-hours. SVE no longer exists but I recently found my Anne Frank video on sale in the bookstore in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, a building in Battery Park that used to stand in the shadow of the World Trade Center.
In the mid-1980s I used to organize focus groups with social studies teachers in Chicago to help us plan our upcoming product lines at SVE. I had such a respect for these teachers—what could be more important than helping students understand the world in which they lived through the lens of past and current events? When I heard that a high school social studies teacher by the name of Christa McAuliffe had been chosen from over 11,000 applicants to be the first civilian to go up in the space shuttle, I followed the story every step of the way. I read everything I could find about Christa’s training, listened to every interview she gave, studied the lesson plans she would bring with her on the historic trip, and got to know her family members and her students in Concord, New Hampshire.
In January 1986, as the launch approached, I couldn’t get enough of the Challenger coverage. I was disappointed each time the cold Florida temperatures delayed the mission. On January 27, I watched McAuliffe’s husband Steven being interviewed on the Today Show, talking about how excited they all were for Christa. Their kids, nine-year-old Scott and six-year-old Caroline, seemed thrilled that their mom was making such an important trip and Scott was excited that his entire third-grade grade class had traveled to Florida to watch the launch the following morning.
On January 28th we all stood around the TV set in the SVE conference room to watch the liftoff. It was still unusually cold in Florida but we were relieved that mission control did not stop the launch. I suppose if it hadn’t been for Christa McAuliffe I might have been following the story of Judith Resnik, the Challenger astronaut who was the second American woman to travel in space and the first Jewish astronaut. The Challenger crew also included commander Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis. When they showed the seven astronauts about to enter the shuttle, my eyes were focused on the high school teacher from New Hampshire. She seemed so happy.
My heart was racing as the Challenger majestically rose from its perch at 9:38 Chicago time. The cameras kept cutting away to McAuliffe’s mother and sister who were there watching the liftoff and live shots from Christa’s former classroom in Concord. It seemed like a perfect launch, the Challenger rising in a beautiful straight line at Cape Canaveral and beginning to arch over the Florida sky. At first I didn’t think anything of the strange double formations that formed around the shuttle’s trail which was being closely followed by the cameras. It took me and the millions of people watching the Challenger several minutes to realize that some kind of major catastrophe had just occurred. It never even crossed my mind that anything could happen to the crew of the Space Shuttle. Hadn’t NASA proven itself over and over again, even when potentially catastrophic situations emerged during some of its earlier missions? The only casualties of the space program to date had been the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were killed by a fire on a launchpad in 1967.
When it became clear that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, I couldn’t speak. My adrenaline racing, it took my brain a while to catch up with what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing. At first in the confusion I remember some close-ups of the stunned and then grief-stricken faces of McAuliffe’s mother and sister. Thank God that there was still a level of human decency among news producers back then because when it became clear what was going on, there were no more images of the astronauts’ families or the horrified students at McAuliffe’s school. I remained frozen in my chair for hours, unable to turn away from the TV coverage. I kept hoping against hope that the cabin containing the astronauts had somehow survived the explosion and that they would be found shaken but alive off the Florida coast. As it turned out, the crew cabin did survive the initial breakup of the shuttle, but of course the astronauts were all killed, probably in the first few seconds after the disaster which we later learned was caused by a faulty O-ring in the rocket booster that had contracted in the still frigid temperatures of that January morning.
I can’t remember a news event that affected me so viscerally before or since. I couldn’t even imagine the grief that the families and friends of the astronauts experienced as they watched the live broadcast of their loved ones’ completely unexpected and terribly violent deaths. Christa McAuliffe felt like a friend, a colleague, and I still had the image of her trusting, excited husband and young children in my head. That night, in a national address, Ronald Reagan expertly delivered the famous words that speechwriter Peggy Noonan had borrowed from a World War II-era sonnet. Despite all my cynicism about Reagan’s policies and political views, I believed his sincerity and emotion when he said:
“We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
I am ashamed to say that when the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003, killing all seven of the astronauts on board, it didn’t have anywhere near the impact on me as the Challenger disaster. I can barely remember the names of the astronauts who died, despite the fact that their deaths were obviously no less a tragedy than the loss of the Challenger crew. What had happened to me in the intervening years? Was I just world-weary and less interested in the space program? Was it a reflection of what was going on in my life at the time? The Columbia astronauts who died that day were commander Rick D. Husband; pilot William C. McCool; payload commander Michael P. Anderson; mission specialists David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla and Laurel Clark; and Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon.
I was unable to drop any of my cynicism of President Bush as he unsuccessfully tried to follow in Reagan’s footsteps and comfort the nation that evening. I’m sure he was deeply saddened by the tragedy but his comments seemed hollow and he certainly lacked the oratory skills that Ronald Reagan possessed. “These astronauts knew the dangers and they faced them willingly,” Bush said in his emotion-free speech, “knowing they had a high and noble purpose in life."
In July 1969, as Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, I ran out into the Chicago night to study the bright orb in the sky. Could I actually see traces of the lunar module or the astronauts’ footprints with my naked eye? It was a thrilling night and a rare moment in which the entire planet seemed united. Everyone on Earth was focused on the amazing achievement of the Apollo astronauts and praying for their safe return. If someone would have asked me back then what the space program would look like in 2006, I would have said that by now there would be regular civilian flights to the bustling colonies on the moon and possibly tourist jaunts to other planets. Space travel would be no big deal by 2006 and maybe we would be interacting with life from other solar systems from whom we could learn so much. It seemed like a future of endless possibilities.