Yesterday was the 21st anniversary of the Challenger disaster. How is it possible that a whole generation has passed since the cold January morning when those seven astronauts died 73 seconds after the space shuttle rose so beautifully into the Florida sky? I wrote about the tragedy on the Huffington Post yesterday but I was mostly remembering one victim of that awful day, the smiling high school teacher who was supposed to be the first civilian to slip the surly bonds of Earth. Christa McAuliffe stood in for all of us baby boomers who spent our Mercury/Gemini/ Apollo-obsessed childhoods fantasizing about traveling into the vast and hopeful frontiers of outer space. While writing that post, I realized that had Christa McAuliffe not been part of that mission, I would have probably been closely following the other woman on board the Challenger, astronaut Judith Resnik.
Judy Resnik hated being referred to as the “first Jewish astronaut” but that’s how every Jewish family in America knew her. While Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov was the first Jew in space (he flew two Soyuz missions in the late 60s), Ohio-born Resnik was the first American Jew to leave the Earth’s atmosphere (as long as you don’t count William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy or the chasidic characters in Mel Brooks' 1981 “Jews in Space” parody). She had a PhD in electrical engineering and unlike many astronauts, did not grow up dreaming of joining the space program. Resnik decided to apply to NASA on a lark in the late 70s. At that time there were only white male astronauts but, under pressure from women’s groups and affirmative action campaigns, NASA had finally decided to recruit women and minorities who had “the right stuff.”
Out of over 1,000 women who applied to be part of the space program, Resnik was shocked when she became one of the six women who were selected. Sally Ride, a native of southern California, became the first American woman to travel into space on June 18, 1983, on one of Challenger's first missions. The following year, Judy Resnik became the second woman in space on the maiden voyage of the Discovery orbiter, logging in 144 hours and 57 minutes outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Resnik and Sally Ride had both worked on the development of the robotic arm that Judy operated on Discovery.
By all accounts, the woman who was the only girl in her high school class to get a perfect score on her SATs was a serious but fun-loving astronaut, an incredibly hard worker, and a loyal friend. What I remember most about her first mission is how her huge mane of hair reacted to the weightless environment inside the shuttle. The other astronauts had great respect for Resnik, even the ones who said that they had some reservations about women joining the space program. “Judy Resnik and the other women at NASA really opened my eyes,” one of the older guard astronauts admitted. “They had dreams and ambitions and were just as good as any male astronaut. Judy was certainly an example of a woman who was very competent. I trusted her with my life and would do it again if she were here.” Judy recognized the inherent dangers in space travel but insisted that the risks were well worth the gains. “I think something is only dangerous if you are not prepared for it,” Resnik said after her first mission, “or if you don't have control over it, or if you can't think through how to get yourself out of the problem.”
Peggy Gawiser Shecket was a childhood friend of Judy’s who was invited to Florida in January 1986 to watch the launch of Judy’s second mission in space as part of the Challenger crew.
I had never seen a launch in person and didn’t suspect a problem as I took continual photos. There was a frightening pause in the audio commentary, however, before we heard that there was a “malfunction.” My husband knew. It would take me much longer to get it. It is a bizarre feeling to plunge from the jubilation at count-down and launch to intense worry. In shock, I fell silent. Immediately we left for the airport. Riding backward, I looked at the continually falling debris, certain that one of the specks was the crew cabin, falling gently suspended by parachutes to bob on the water until rescue people arrived.
On the plane, I sat next to a photojournalist who was creating a book on the shuttle. He told me, clearly, that there was no way the crew could have survived. Shocked enough to not speak to my children, I arrived home. That evening friends and relatives called. I said I could not talk and hung up. Finally at the boys’ bedtime, I was able to tell the 3- and 6-year-olds that we had seen a very bad accident. The next day the rabbi called to express his sympathy and concern. When the rabbi calls to say he is sorry, the person has really died. Quiet shock turned to sobs.
The boys and I began to have nightmares. In theirs, there were explosions and fire. In some of mine, Judy was well, living in Europe; she revealed that the whole thing had been a joke. My son asked me how to make the dreams stop. I told him we would have the dreams until we didn’t need to have them anymore. And eventually, we didn’t. Right before Judy’s funeral was to begin, the temple shook with an earthquake. I pictured telling Judy that I had truly “felt the earth move,” and we would have giggled. Time passes. Life has changed. I imagine that if the flight had gone as planned, Judy and I would have peaceful, easy times to share at this stage of our lives. I think we’d exchange frequent e-mail and I’d send digital photos of my wonderful adult sons. Perhaps we’d still share secrets. I would tell her what a wonderful role model and pioneer she has been for our young women and thank her for including me in her life, adding excitement to mine. I miss her still.
Judy Resnik didn’t want to be defined as the first Jewish astronaut or the second American woman in space but I believe those milestones are an important gateway to breaking down boundaries in our society and changing the way that people think about women and minorities.
I remember listening to Halle Berry’s speech at the 2002 Oscars when she became the first African-American to win the Best Actress award. At the time I thought her words were a bit over the top: “Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I'm sorry. This moment is so much bigger than me…it's for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” In retrospect, I think Berry was dead-on. We need to go through the shock of those “firsts” before such things start to seem normal. Have you noticed that in almost everyone’s Oscar predictions this year (including my own), three of the four top acting prizes are slated for African-Americans and that fact is barely mentioned? That is a far cry from the hysteria that ensued when Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, and even Halle Berry won their awards.
The boundaries have been broached in many areas but some foundation-rocking firsts are yet to come. Many people still have a hard time imagining a Jewish person, a woman, or an African-American as President of the United States. When these milestones occur (and I’m positive all three of them will during my lifetime, possibly starting in 2008), they will cease to seem like such a big deal and soon people will wonder what all the fuss was about.
Judy Resnik grew up in a Jewish community, went to Hebrew School, and celebrated her Bat Mitzvah. As an adult, she was not observant. Ilan Ramon was the first Israeli astronaut on a space shuttle crew and he was much more religious. Ramon was the first astronaut to require kosher space meals (NASA complied) and he had to consult with several rabbis to determine how to observe the Sabbath. “If a Jewish astronaut is circling the Earth every ninety minutes,” he wondered, “should he pray the Morning Service every ninety minutes--with the Afternoon and Evening Services on ninety-minute rotations as well? And if a ‘day’ for an orbiting astronaut is ninety minutes long, rather than twenty-four hours long, should he observe Shabbat after six orbits--that is, every nine hours--for ninety minutes at a time?” These questions were debated and discussed and guidelines were drawn up for religious Jews orbiting the Earth. In the end, Ramon did not have to engage in multiple prayer sessions based on the shuttle’s position because the rabbis determined he was not really subject to “Earth time.”
Tragically, Ilan Ramon, like Judy Resnik, was part of a catastrophic disaster in the space shuttle program. Although he was able to participate in his groundbreaking mission in January 2003, he died with the six other crew members (including female astronauts Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chalwa) when the Columbia orbiter broke apart during reentry into the atmosphere over Texas on its way to Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Some anti-Semitic lunatics tried to draw connections between the Challenger and the Columbia tragedies claiming that their destruction was part of God’s wrath and directly related to the presence of the Jewish astronauts on board. Of course there are now several other Jewish astronauts in the Space Shuttle program who have flown without incident, as Judy Resnik herself did in 1984.
Today I am thinking of Judy Resnik’s smiling face as she boarded the Challenger full of hope and excitement. Judy’s close friend Robert Stevens, a NASA contractor, wrote about her on the 20th anniversary of the Challenger explosion.
The last words she said was the night before on the Astronaut telephone links to families where she was sequestered, “see ya in a week, green eyes,” a moniker for me in that she always loved my green eyes so she said.
I saw her last as she came out of the astro lodge and into the astrovan on her way to the pad and her ship. I shouted to her. She shouted back for which I did not hear, and blew me a kiss.
The fireball erupted at 73 seconds. A thing both fascinating and frightening, a cancer-colored nightmare unfolding in the dark cobalt skies above the world’s first true spaceport. It was failing before my eyes, before the nation’s, before the people of the world. The sum total of our achievement, now spiraling in a tendril of uncommon fiery arcs, surging back toward the ocean surface, now 7 miles below the disintegrating craft. My mouth began to open as did everyone else’s. All forward motion had ceased. The vehicle was gone now.
We do not see death like this among loved ones. Generally it is a knock on the door in the night. We are informed that uncle Jack or whomever has plowed into a light pole, or a heart attack stopped him. We are not used to seeing a loved one right on the cusp of the grandest adventure of all time, soaring in complete personal, professional, national triumph, on the world’s first true space ship, right at the height of utter triumph. Then vanish. One second, triumph. The next second, literally disappear in a orange fog of searing terror. A fireball. Seared into the brain forever. The great ship was dead and gone and was falling delicately in pieces back down to Earth's second largest ocean.
For months and even into the second year, I cried for Judy, for NASA, for everyone in our wonderful country, and for me. I wanted Judy back. I wanted Challenger to not fall down. The gulf of years quickly fall behind me now as I entrain forward in life between me and this thing. But every January 28th, at 11:37 AM, I pause for just a moment. The pain and terror, oddly, are the same, for just a moment, but her face is cloudy now as I remember it. I remember the fireball, but I can't remember exactly the lines of her face or her soft watery dark eyes. Perhaps tears make the view blurry in memory as I stare back across such dark gulfs in time.
Every year, I pause for just a moment. In those moments the crushing sadness is very great. And I never wanted to miss a thing. It was a grand time. It was a time of being invincible. For 73 seconds, whether she knew it or not, wanted to or not, she was on the edge of a still very raw technology, hanging her hide along with 6 others right out over the Yawning Red Maw. For 73 seconds, she was a pioneer, an explorer, an astronaut. A very fine woman. She was there in that thing, that beautiful space ship, surging ahead in that Ahura Mazda Surge that few of us ever will know or feel in this lifetime, moving vertically at 4900 feet per second. Surging at 3600 miles per hour, going up, ship screaming with all motors running nominal. Triumph at full bore acceleration. Rising up with all engines running at 104%. Right at, “Challenger, Go For Throttle Up.” And then she went away.