For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.
I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.
The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12 noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.
I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.
That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.</span>
It feels odd acknowledging this anniversary today, because time has worn away at the emotional pain and shock I experienced the night my father died. Fifteen years ago, on the tenth anniversary of Dad's passing, my family took out an In Memoriam ad in the New York Times, which Mom appreciated. Today, Mom is also gone, and in a way posting here is much more of an acknowledgement of this momentous anniversary than taking out an ad in a newspaper.
I tend to think Dad was a fascinating person. He was born in December 1929, in the wake of the stock market collapse, and so grew up during the Depression, which affected his outlook for the rest of his life. When he was almost ten years old, he attended the 1939 New York City World's Fair, and fell in love with the visions of the future it presented. He graduated as valedictorian of DeWitt Clinton High School (which was in Manhattan at the time, I think) and started college at Columbia, where he was editor of the college newspaper, The Spectator.
But while he was in his teenage years and World War II was raging, news of the Holocaust came to the United States. My grandfather was a rabbi, and my Dad grew up in a religious household; but the Holocaust caused him to lose his faith in God and to break away from religion.
On the other hand, he felt a strong connection to the Jewish people. In the 1940s he ran guns to the nascent Jewish state of Israel, and then he dropped out of college, never finishing, in order to smuggle himself into Israel and fight in the 1948 War for Independence.
Dad was dedicated to journalism and newspapers. He used to like to quote Thomas Jefferson, who once said that he would rather have newspapers without government than government without newspapers. Dad spent his life working at a whole variety of newspapers in New York City. In the midst of all this, he married his first wife, Evelyn, and had two sons, my half-brothers David and Daniel. Eventually, Dad and Evelyn divorced. He met my mother Eleanor, married her, and had three more sons: Jonathan, Michael, and Joshua.
By the time I knew him, Dad had been working at the New York Daily News for many years. In 1990, the Daily News unions were locked out and so once again went on strike against the owner of the paper, the Chicago Tribune Company. Dad was in the Newspaper Guild union office twenty years ago when he collapsed of a heart attack and was pronounced dead at St. Claire's Hospital. My brothers and I were in the Boston area at the time -- Jon in medical school, Josh and me in college. Jon and Josh were on a train home already because my father's mother had just died the day before, and they were going to NYC to be with my Dad for her funeral. We had no way of knowing that on Sunday, November 4, we would attend one funeral after another, with print and TV reporters gathered with our friends and family, the media there to report on my father's death as another tragic story.
My father was a strong believer in justice, in supporting the powerless against the powerful. Two months before he died, I marched with him in the NYC Labor Day Parade. The Greyhound bus drivers were on strike, and Dad – who always kept an eye on family finances – donated money to their fund without blinking. After he died, I found among his personal papers articles he had clipped about a Mohawk tribe in upstate New York struggling to get a piece of land back from the federal government. Dad always shared stories like that with us, to remind us that the fight for justice was a neverending battle.
Dad had been a reader of science fiction and comic books when he was growing up; by the time I knew him, he mostly read mysteries. But he inculcated in me a love of science fiction, and my one regret about my own writing is that he never got to read it. But his spirit infuses every word I write.