Americans who watched the moon landing talk about it as a moment they’ll never forget.  They remember every detail:  how old they were, the television on which they watched it, the room in the house where it was playing, what their mothers had made for dinner that evening.  Very few moments in American history achieve this mythic status, and most that do revolve around tragedy:  Pearl Harbor, Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11.

But the moon landing heralded something different:  the world had woken from a dream and discovered that it was true.  For All Mankind, with its images of the Earth from space, of astronauts at play, conveys the kind of marvel the idea of space travel must have in the late 60s.

Alas, being born until 1974, I came late to all that.  Much of the awe had been lost to history and progress.  Everyone remembers Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, but who remembers the second team to summit Everest?  Besides, once you’ve watched one countdown, you’ve seen them all.

My sixth-grade teacher tried to re-excite us about space travel.  Halley’s Comet, after all, was returning.  She assigned the whole class to write reports on the comet.  I researched how the comet has been seen, throughout history, as an omen:  Mark Twain, for example, was born on the day it appeared in 1835 and died on the day it next appeared.  On black construction paper, I drew diagrams of ‘Why solar winds matter!’ and renderings of what the comet would look like head-on.

When my academic rival, John, used appliqué letters to make his report look like a newspaper, she held up his report and exhorted us all to do the same.  Further proof:  once something has been done, the second time just isn’t as special.

But in the grand scheme, Halley’s passing seemed inconsequential.  I stared into the night sky, searching for where it should have been.  But the ambient lights in Aurora were too much for such a distant light.  If I saw streaks in the night, they were more likely to be planes flying into nearby Stapleton airport than a comet that I wouldn’t see again until I was 86 (if I was lucky).

In any case, Halley’s Comet paled in comparison to just a month earlier — I was sitting in class, doing busy work designed to keep students quiet for minutes at a time.  Our principal came over the Intercom.  Solemn and gravelly, he announced that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded.  The silence in the classroom extended outward over the whole school.  No one knew what to say.  We looked each other, and then at our teacher, who was never in the running to be the first teacher in space, but we could imagine her, in that moment, as Christa McAuliffe.

Later in the week, I asked my father, who was teaching for Denver Public Schools at that time, if he would have gone on the Challenger, even knowing that it was going to explode; space travel would never again seem safe, filled with wonder.  But without hesitating, my father answered, Yes.  In a heartbeat.

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