Flashbulb memory, they call it. It’s when you remember exactly where you were when you first discovered something or saw something happen.
If you’re younger than me, which a lot of you probably are, then your first flashbulb memory is probably related to terrorism somehow. Anybody in, say, their early thirties or older probably remembers exactly where they were on September 11, 2001. A little younger than that and your first flashbulb memory is probably one of the bombings in Chicago in 2018.
I was six years old when the space shuttle Challenger exploded. It was January 29, 1986, at exactly eleven thirty-nine in the morning. I was in first grade. For some reason– I could look this up if I wanted, I suppose, but my first-grade self didn’t know, so I’m not going to bother– NASA had decided that it would be great if they put a schoolteacher on the Space Shuttle. Her name was Christa McAuliffe, and she’d been a middle school teacher, her students not a lot older than I was at the time.
There was a ton of publicity about her presence on the shuttle. Come to think of it, might have been the reason that NASA put her there in the first place. Every single kid in my school was watching the flight launch on television. The Challenger took off, and we all clapped. Seventy-three seconds later, an O-ring failed on the shuttle’s right Solid Rocket Booster. There was a little puff of smoke from the side of the ship.
Some of us were still clapping.
I remember noticing it and wondering, for the split second that I had, what had happened. And then the Challenger, with me and millions of other people around the country watching, silently blew apart. There were a few seconds of shocked silence in the room, and then every kid in the class– every one in the building, probably– started crying at once.
You know what? Writing that just now, I wondered what my teacher must have done afterwards. I can’t even remember her name. I can remember the wood surface on my desk, because I dug my fingers into it so hard that day that they scratched it and I got splinters. I can remember the wood-grain on the television set they had us watching. I can remember being surprised that Rachel Douglas, the biggest butthead in the entire first grade, was crying as hard as I was. But I can’t remember a single thing that our teacher did to try and bring everybody back to sanity after watching that happen. That’s how flashbulb memories work; you’ll remember the event itself forever, but that doesn’t mean you’ll remember anything else that happened around it.
Seventeen years and two days later, it happened again. This time, it was the shuttle Columbia, and I was twenty-four and no longer sitting in a classroom. In fact, when the Columbia was falling apart in the morning sky over Texas, I was stuck in traffic and late to work. I found out about it about ten minutes after I got in, when the smarmy dope from the office next door made some sort of comment about it to me. We had the Internet by then– yes, there was Internet back then, although I think we might have still been calling it the World Wide Web– and I saw the entire thing on CNN’s Web site. This time there weren’t any tears, just a dull sort of ache in the pit of my stomach. I spent the rest of the day on the computer, chasing down eyewitness reports and trying to devour whatever little bits of actual news managed to leak out. It was funny; I hadn’t spent much time thinking about space flight since the first grade, but suddenly the families of the men and women on that shuttle were all I could think about.
I was working for the Indianapolis Star at the time, splitting my time between a biweekly column in the science section and general reporting on local news for the rest of the paper. It was a good job; I was happy enough, and making enough money, but I wanted something different from my life.
I decided to write a book.
A year later, I’d completed Nothing to Bury: the Martyrs of the Space Race, a look at the lives of the astronauts who had died on the Challenger and the Columbia, as well as a host of other lives lost in the pursuit of space, and a look at the culture of NASA in between the two disasters. I was pretty proud of it as a piece of work; I wasn’t expecting it to necessarily sell well to the general public, but it was a good piece of writing. It did better than I’d expected, enough that I’ve been able to be comfortable with freelance writing since then. I’m still working for news sites and some of the few print papers that are left, mind you, but I can pick my own assignments and do my own reporting now as opposed to having people assign my projects.
You know where this is going, don’t you? I imagine you do.
On August 15, 2022, after years of technical and political delays, the space shuttle Tycho, carrying four astronauts, launched on a six-month journey to Mars. They were to remain in orbit around Mars for thirty days, during which they would land on the planet’s surface for the first time in human history, then to return to Earth. The run-up to the launch was the biggest public relations bonanza NASA had ever seen. Everything just stopped the day the Tycho launched. It was just like it had been for the Challenger, only times a hundred. They just weren’t as good at hype in the eighties, I guess.
I was watching at home, with a couple of friends– I actually had a little party for the launch. I didn’t realize how tense I was until I looked at my hands afterwards. There were furrows in my palms from my fingernails. Then the shuttle took off, soaring into a perfectly blue sky, and I held my breath for a few moments.
The launch went off without a hitch, though, and pictures of the Tycho blanketed every website and print doc on the planet over the next few days. For the next six months, everyone was obsessed with Mars. The astronauts provided regular updates on what they were doing. You could get daily blink messages from them if you wanted to, and progress along their flight path was updated live on a map running at the top of CNN.com for the entire duration of the trip. Those six months, I’m convinced, inspired a whole generation of new astronauts, astrophysicists, and pilots. I’ve never in my life seen America more excited about science. It was amazing.
And then, on February 19th, 2023, when the long voyage was finally over, we… well, we don’t actually know what happened. The Tycho was supposed to aerobrake into orbit around Mars, stay in orbit for a day or two, and then the astronauts were going to leave the ship to descend to the planet’s surface in a lander. They were going to stay on the surface for two weeks or so, doing experiments, exploring the Martian surface, and making history.
There wasn’t anything resembling photo evidence, not good evidence at least– NASA had been sending a steady diet of pictures and video from cameras affixed to the outside of the Tycho for months, but they failed at the same time as the audio feed. But we were getting audio beamed back from inside the cabin. Right up until the point where the flight commander, a decorated Marine pilot by the name of Alondra Gallegos, spoke the last words that the Tycho sent back to Earth.
“Is that…” was all she said.
After that, nothing. No sound, no signals, no big explosion to be played on the news over and over again. Just nothing at all, and what started off as mild concern slowly morphed, over the next few days, weeks, months, into the certainty that, somehow, the ship had been lost. There was hope for a while that there had just been some sort of global communications failure, that the Tycho was still out there but had lost the ability to talk to us. Sadly, those hopes didn’t make much sense in reality– the Tycho’s communication capabilities were among the simplest systems on the ship, something a talented twelve-year-old would have been able to repair, and there was a redundant backup system. Anything catastrophic enough to have completely crippled the ship’s ability to talk would have caused fatal damage to the rest of the ship as well. We just couldn’t figure out what. Conventional wisdom eventually decided there had been some sort of asteroid or meteorite impact, something like that.
There was no flashbulb moment for the Tycho. The families of the four people lost on that mission– Alondra Gallegos, Daion Brown, Kassius Newsome, and Ai-Li Wu– will never be able to move on. Many of them are convinced that their family members are still out there somewhere. There was no national mourning like there was for the Challenger and the Columbia. It was as if, after three high-profile ship losses, this time the country just wanted to forget about it.
I got a few calls for interviews after the Tycho lost contact, and a few more a few months later, once NASA officially stopped trying to reestablish contact with the ship. I turned them all down, though; I didn’t want to base any more of my career on profiting from the deaths of people more heroic and important than I was. I didn’t want to write about space any more.
Little did I know.