Chinese New Year 4700, Space Shuttle Columbia Explosion

The year 4700 on the Chinese calendar got off to a very sombre start.

Today is Chinese New Year’s day. Today, I had many things I wanted to do. Most of them were summarily forgotten when, barely a few minutes out of bed, Tamara announced: “The space shuttle blew up.” I took pause. I was barely awake enough to know that this was bad, but not awake enough for it to truly have effect.

I marched downstairs and turned on CNN. The coverage wasn’t as intense as September 11th, but CNN was skipping commercials, in favour of coverage. They flipped around constantly, talking with reporters from all over America, periodically talking with an official or former engineer. CBC had entirely different coverage, actually bringing in Roberta Bondar to talk with their anchor. A press conference with the Canadian Space Agency featured Marc Garneau.

There wasn’t the oppressive feeling of loss or shock. Perhaps we’ve just become too immune. Then an interesting fact came to light — it was 17 years and four days since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded over the Atlantic Ocean, 73 seconds into the 25th shuttle mission.

Just after noon, I was doing my duty as a student crossing guard, curbing the flow of traffic so students could return to school after lunch. As usual, one girl — a few grades behind me — came up to deliver her daily torture. For some reason, we didn’t much like each other. She was a little caustic, and I had a superiority complex. Yet we each recognized this, and turned it into a game. On that day, however, she instead told me the truth: The shuttle had exploded.

At first, I hadn’t believed her. The shuttle couldn’t explode. It was the space shuttle! It was NASA! That sort of thing just doesn’t happen. (This was long before I’d learned of the Apollo 1 fire, or saw video of NASA’s early rocket failures.) My faith in the American space programme was unfaltering. I expected there to be regular flights into space by the time I was 20. For the shuttle to explode just seemed too fantastic.

The truth sank in before I returned to school after lunch. Most of my friends didn’t go home for lunch, and didn’t know. They seemed as doubtful as I had been. Barely a few minutes into class, the principal called an assembly in the gym. It was true. The shuttle had exploded barely a minute off the launchpad. I don’t remember the rest of the afternoon. But I watched the entire 6:00pm CityTV news broadcast, which had been almost entirely devoted to the shuttle disaster (only five minutes were granted to other news).

Seventeen years later, the reaction was different. People seemed shocked, yes, but more were accepting of the dangers of spaceflight. It seems that while people do become complacent about regular shuttle launches, they seem to all know that eventually, something will go wrong. When Tamara had told me the shuttle exploded, I assumed it was a launch. Breaking up on reentry was something I had not considered.

I eventually did run a few errands. But in the back of my mind the entire time was what sort of things could I expect to see. Thoughts of what I’d seen on September 11th still haunt me. I saw and heard nothing. It was almost like it hadn’t happened. In fact, if Calgary had been upset by the disaster, it was already well on the way to recovery. Chinese New Year went ahead without pause. It was business as usual.

Still, everyone seemed to talk about the loss of Columbia, even if it wasn’t the first thing on their minds. We still went to Chinese New Year dinner. We still went about our lives. But the thought is still there. I don’t know if in 17 years, I’ll remember where I was today.

But I will remember what happened.