Today, the Space Shuttle Discovery has been safely back on Floridian soil for two weeks--a fact of which made my radar only because four weeks ago I happened to see it launch.
Prior to last month, my most vivid memory of the Space Shuttle program is one I likely share with most people my age or older: the 1986 Challenger explosion. Within minutes after the news broke, school administrators set up televisions in every classroom—I was in art class at the time—and kept the coverage playing school wide for the remainder of the day. At least that’s how I remember it.
The summer before the explosion, I’d read a feature in one of my teenie-bopper magazines about Christa Mcauliffe, the school teacher who had been selected to accompany the astronauts on that ill-fated mission. At that time, I viewed Mcauliffe as a role model simply because she was a woman—an average woman, really—doing something brave and noteworthy. I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the mission details—I wasn’t really into that sort of thing (I was an art student, remember?)—but I was in the middle of a pretty big feminist phase, so I couldn’t help but be impressed.
Years later, I would remember Christa for a different reason. Something she said once about teaching wound up as a bumper sticker fave that I still see in traffic from time to time: “I touch the future. I teach.” I’ve thought about those words dozens of times over the years, every time I have thought of teaching as only the bread-and-butter work I do because there is no money in art, or writing— the only two things I really know to do, the latter more than the former. To date, I’ve held two real teaching jobs, periods of my life that I mentally reference as Art I and Art II.
I loved Art I, adored it, actually, and still miss it. Not in the I-wish-I-was-still-there sort of way, but in a sort of I-miss-that-sweet-time way. My kids were little. I went to school with them twice a week. I was their art teacher, and their friend’s teacher, too. Still, my real ambitions were in writing—still are, in fact, and I had it in my head that when I “made it” as a writer, I’d leave teaching, because, well, I’d be doing writerly things all the time. Writing was my real calling—teaching was a worthwhile way to bide my time and be a good mom, too.
Every now and then, though, I’d see Christa’s words tooling around town on the back of some fender, and I’d wonder about the parts of the future I was touching as I bided my time, waiting to become a writer, which I slowly became. By late Art I, I found myself on assignment for my local newspaper most days I wasn’t in the classroom. Still, I wasn’t making enough money on all those assignments to justify leaving the classroom, and, besides, I loved those kids. They literally cheered when they’d see me arrive on campus—I was something of a paintbrush wielding, clay shaping, tile smashing celebrity to them. They ‘d shower me with hugs, pepper me with questions, and remember parts of lessons I forgot I even taught.
I thought about all of these things whenever I’d see Christa’s words, but oddly, I never dwelled much on the shuttle. Before last month, it’s unlikely that I gave the space program more than a few fleeting thoughts in the past couple decades.
Then my husband who is, of late, an independent contractor working for NASA, happened to score a pass to watch April’s launch from a prime location. I instantly recognized the opportunity as something that was to be valued, an experience that even makes the cut as a Bucket List item for some folks. Indeed, we were even able to share our pass with a Virginia family who made the 18 hour drive to meet us in a Wal Mart parking lot at 2:30 in the morning to fulfill that dream.
Driving to our meet-up, I couldn’t miss the energy coursing through the town—encampments at Wal Mart, traffic funneling into NASA, busses transporting people to locations some 6 miles away from the launch pad—vantage points they’d paid seep prices to secure. The excitement was palpable, raising my interest level and curiosity about what I was to witness.
As our party of six set up camp along the banks of the Banana River, I quickly realized that the whole experience was being narrated in a fashion not unlike the color commentary at a baseball game. An anonymous voice kept the assemblage appraised of events in surprisingly layman-friendly terms. The astronauts—one of whom was a teacher—would be “doing science” in space, we were told. The Voice informed of the discovery that a part was “a little bit broken,” but not anything about which we should worry. We were continually assured of the favorability of the weather conditions, the happiness of the crew, and the time remaining until launch.
Across the dark waters—in which we could just make out the movements of the dorsal fins of playing dolphins—we saw the powerfully-illuminated shuttle. Thanks to the vigilance of The Voice, we we able to track the movements of the International Space Station—the entity with which the Shuttle would be uniting—as it streaked across the clear sky.
The actual moment happened quickly, yet made an imprint on the sky that lasted long after the craft was out of sight. Jet trails etched over the sunrise, cementing the memory into my mind with a visual as beautiful as priceless artwork. On that morning, at that moment, I was very much in the present, savoring something I wanted to remember. And, as a result, I now have a different memory of the space shuttle, one that will always make me feel connected to a program that is just three missions away from becoming our past.
In a way, too, I suppose I forged another connection with the astronaut who taught me to value my classroom and inspired me to make an imprint of my own--across hearts, rather than skies. Although Christa Mcauliffe never knew me, I became her accidental student all the same--a student who has learned well the lesson to embrace the opportunity to leave fingerprints on the future—even though mine just happen to be in paint.