Monday, February 1, 2016

Remarks by Homer Hickam at the Challenger Remembrance, Space & Rocket Center, Jan. 28, 2016

30 Year Anniversary Remarks
 as given by
Homer Hickam
in Huntsville, Alabama
at the USSRC Remembrance Day for Challenger
beneath the Space Shuttle Replica Pathfinder
January 28, 2016

We come here today to honor the men and women who have gone on before us, they who were lifted from the Earth 30 years ago today, they who were determined to venture into the far reaches of space, they who met with tragedy instead, a tragedy that still causes pain in the hearts of not only those of us who knew them but in all of us who believe in our future in the great beyond, the great beyond of our solar system and, yes, even the stars.

I was in Japan that day, there to train the first Japanese astronauts who were to join us in a Spacelab mission. The schedule showed that in all probability they would fly aboard one of America's sleek space shuttles, the one called Challenger.

Although I was not there, I was told it was not a normal day at Cape Canaveral. Ice was on the launch pad, icicles hung from the tower. Yet, the sky was blue, the air clean. The countdown, after days of frustration, was at last proceeding. An expectation was in the air. Challenger was going and where it would go, so would its crew and, in a way, so would we all.

The call in Japan was very early in the morning. In disbelief, I heard that Challenger had come apart in the sky. How it had happened, my caller didn't know, just that it had. Within a few days, the mission for the Japanese astronauts was put on hold for how long, we didn't know. For all we knew, it might be permanent. I came home, home to Huntsville, home to Marshall Space Flight Center, home to a shaken agency, a shaken country, a shaken dream.

As the tragedy unfolded, and we began to learn the physical causes of the accident, the national media and many elected officials kept demanding: Of what value is all this? Is it worth seven lives or even one life? Why proceed? Maybe what we should do is just give up. Maybe this was the reckoning that had always been there, the bitter fruit of an endeavor that is too much for the grasp of mere humans.

I had met all the crew and knew fairly well El Onizuka. El came up to Marshall often, to put on a space suit and venture underwater in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. I was often his safety diver. He was a brilliant man with a fine sense of humor. All of us at the tank liked him a lot. I also met another of the crew. Christa McAuliffe. The teacher in space. She came to the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator on a tour and I was there that day. We only shared a few words but her excitement for all things space was truly evident. She was on a mission to show school children in the country and the world the value of education, the value of exploration, the value of pushing into the high frontier.

There is a beauty in anything well done, and that goes for a life well lived. Christa lived a fine, productive life.

She was not afraid. None of them were afraid. And that was why we were and are not afraid to continue her dream which we do today.

There are many space programs in the world today. In many ways, they share the dream with us. How could they not? We are all humans. But we often forget, in our rush to be inclusive and fair, that there is something unique about any great endeavor in which Americans are part and this is especially true of the movement into space, there to explore and even live.

We represent a minority but very important view in this world of people as individuals. From our founding as a nation, we have believed that we have the natural right to be free, that no man or woman is inherently greater than another, that we do not have to accept tyranny as a way of life, that we can remake and reshape ourselves any way we like without others telling us we can't.

This outlook is actually a heavy burden. It would be easier to let someone high and mighty tell us what to do. But that's not our way. Those are not our values. When they go anywhere, even into space, often without even realizing it, our people carry with them the values of freedom, of representative democracy, of a disdain for oppression, and an overarching optimism that if the goal is important enough, it will be obtained, not by a collective following orders, but by individuals voluntarily bound together for a common goal. That is our heritage. May it ever be so.

Of course, we make mistakes. Launching Challenger that day was one of them. Seven extraordinary men and women died because those who held responsibility for their lives did not fully understand their vehicle.

Afterwards, it was not a time for heroics. It was a time for reflection and then to roll up our sleeves and get back to work. This we did at NASA, at our contractors, and especially here at Marshall Space Flight Center. When it was clear that President Reagan, God bless him, and the Congress were telling us to go ahead, the engineers at Marshall got busy. They solved the problem that caused Challenger and we began to fly again.

If they had not, if they had failed, there would have been no Hubble Space Telescope, no Hubble repair missions, no Spacelab missions which included those first Japanese astronauts and many others from around the world, no International Space Station. The ISS could not have been built without the shuttle. Those things we did but always, I think, with the Challenger and her crew on our minds.

As we come together today, in the shadow of the past and the literal shadow of this magnificent space shuttle replica, we recall a failure that was followed by the triumph of the human spirit and a series of great missions.

The temptation always is to remember those triumphs and those missions and put aside our failures but we must never forget the awful lessons of Challenger even while we dedicate ourselves anew to the high frontier.

The people who raised me in the coalfields of the Appalachian mountains were no strangers to hardship and death. But they sustained themselves by following a few simple rules of life. They said to themselves and anyone who wondered about them:

We are proud of who we are.
We stand up for what we believe.
We keep our families together.
We trust in God but rely on ourselves.

By adhering to those simple approaches to life, they became a people who were not afraid to do what had to be done, to mine the deep coal, and to do it with integrity and honor.

I believe we of NASA, we of the American space program, also adhere to those rules.

We are proud of who we are.

We not only hold the dream of space. We're doing something about it.

We stand up for what we believe.

We are not afraid to voice our belief that the future for mankind is not just here on this planet but other planets and moons and stars.

We keep our family together.

We are a family, just as sure as blood relatives. We are bound together as a family because we have a belief that what we do is not just a dream but a requirement for the survival of mankind.

And we trust in our Maker but rely on ourselves.

Yes, there is a spiritual side to what we do, a sense that there is something far greater than ourselves urging us to do what we do, to climb off this Earth and try to touch the stars. We know it's not going to be given to us. To reach this great goal, we will have to strive for it, to sweat, and, sadly, sometimes to die.

And so we find ourselves here, 30 years after Challenger, challenged by the memory of that vehicle and its crew to dedicate ourselves anew to go forth from this place with not only the latest technical marvels and the most advanced machines possible, but also with an enduring belief in the old ways, the old virtues, the old truths that all but force us to lift our heads from the darkness to the light, and say for the nation and all the world to hear:

We are proud of who we are.
We stand up for what we believe.
We keep our family together.
We trust in our Maker but rely on ourselves.

We do what needs to be done.

We are Americans. We are NASA.

We are not afraid.