“Ave Atque Vale!”

The Covington News - - Heat beat - Nat Har­well is a Cov­ing­ton res­i­dent. His col­umn ap­pears Sun­days.

I re­mem­ber the sun­rise on a crisp, cold Tues­day some 25 years ago.

My wife and I were both teach­ing at old Sharp Mid­dle School, and were rent­ing one of our fond­est mem­o­ries at 6107 Floyd St., next door to one of the grand­est couples who ever graced Cov­ing­ton, the late Char­lie and Au­drey Smith.

My wife had al­ready gone to school in our 1971 Oldsmo­bile Delta 88, the springs of which had long since given up to pro­duce a “low rider.” My mother had ar­rived to babysit our kids, and I paused in the drive­way to breathe in the fresh morn­ing air as I watched the fat orange orb climb into the crys­tal clear, cobalt blue sky.

It was Jan­uary 28, 1986. I con­tin­ued to watch the sun­rise in the mir­ror through the huge rear win­dow of my 1973 AMC Grem­lin as I tra­versed New­ton Drive to­ward Sharp.

It was a beau­ti­ful day for a space shut­tle launch. As one who had ap­plied for her seat on shut­tle mis­sion STS51-L, I knew that by now Christa McAuliffe, NASA’s first “teacher in space,” had al­ready strapped into the or­biter named — ap­pro­pri­ately — Chal­lenger.

We weren’t far into the school day when came a most sur­pris­ing an­nounce­ment. All New­ton County schools were be­ing dis­missed, im­me­di­ately, for a re­mark­able rea­son: the pipe sup­ply­ing wa­ter to New­ton County Com­pre­hen­sive High School had bro­ken. NCCHS could not pro­vide lunch for stu­dents, nor re­stroom fa­cil­i­ties. In ’ 86 there ex­isted but one high school in the county, and the bus fleet was tied to a com­pli­cated pat­tern in­volv­ing it, the two mid­dle schools and five el­e­men­tary schools. If any one school had to dis­miss, they all did.

I re­mem­ber walk­ing into our house and flip­ping on the tele­vi­sion, and, as the pic­ture came on, hear­ing the NASA com­mu­ni­ca­tor, or CAP­COM, call out: “Chal­lenger, you are go at throt­tle up.”

Mike Smith, the pilot, an­swered: “Roger, go at throt­tle up.”

The pic­ture was clear by now. I’d set­tled into a chair to await “SRB sep” in an­other minute or so, when the solid rocket boost­ers would be sep­a­rated at about 2:16 into the flight. But some­thing was just not right with the pic­ture. I could see the SRBs twist­ing away from the shut­tle way too soon. And there was an omi­nous, huge white cloud in the cen­ter of the pic­ture tube.

And, just like that, I knew Chal­lenger was gone. Dumb­struck, I watched the events of the next few days un­fold. And ever since, my heart catches in my throat when­ever I hear “go at throt­tle up.”

My wife had been se­lected to par­tic­i­pate in NASA’s Ed­u­ca­tional Work­shop for Math And Science Teach­ers (NEWMAST) at the Kennedy Space Cen­ter in the sum­mer of 1986. As it turned out, KSC shut down for nearly two years as the Rogers Com­mis­sion in­ves­ti­gated the Chal­lenger disas­ter. The NEWMAST pro­gram, how­ever, con­vened as sched­uled. And, as a re­sult of the on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion, my wife’s group was granted spec­tac­u­lar “be­hind the scenes” ac­cess which would other­wise never have tran­spired.

Both of us have en­joyed last­ing re­la­tion­ships with NASA folks over the in­ter­ven­ing decades, formed from a bond of shared loss and ce­mented in a de­vo­tion to those who dared put out their hand and touch the face of God that Jan­uary morn­ing in 1986.

We’ve at­tended sub­se­quent launches and re­unions and trea­sure meet­ing Gene Thomas, launch di­rec­tor for the Chal­lenger flight and the only per­son not only found blame­less by the Com­mis­sion, but sub­se­quently pro­moted to di­rec­tor of shut­tle op­er­a­tions.

Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, El Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Judy Res­nik and Christa McAuliffe still live in my heart, as do those who per­ished when Columbia broke apart over Texas in 2003.

And now I’m again dumb­struck to be­hold the sun­rise of a day — fol­low­ing the cur­rent mis­sion of At­lantis to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion — in which Amer­ica will have no way to launch hu­mans into space.

Yes, I re­mem­ber that crisp, cold Jan­uary morn­ing in 1986. I re­mem­ber Pres­i­dent Rea­gan’s re­mark that though the Chal­lenger is lost, the chal­lenge re­mains. And I, along with the world, have reaped the ben­e­fits gleaned from Amer­ica’s manned space flight pro­grams.

Gus Gris­som, Roger Chaffee and Ed White per­ished in a fire while train­ing for Apollo 1. They, and the en­tire com­pany of astro­nauts, ad­vanced mankind’s body of knowl­edge, ex­po­nen­tially, over the course of one hu­man life­time. Amer­ica en­tered, and now ex­its, manned space flight in a time frame cov­er­ing barely 50 years.

To these brave souls of­fer I the words of Ro­man poet Gaius Va­lerius Cat­ul­lus, “Ave Atque Vale!” Roughly trans­lated, it’s “Hail and Farewell!”

And I won­der, who will now go where no one has gone be­fore? And just when — and how — will that be?


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