Saturday, January 28, 2006

Challenger - 20 years Ago Today

Twenty years ago today I was sick. I was in bed, exhausted, blowing my nose. Sick. I got up late that morning and padded into the living room. Idly I flipped on the TV.

I was doing news at a radio station at the time, and wanted to see the shuttle launch. My clock was a little off and I had missed the launch by a few minutes. What came on the screen was Dan Rather's very somber visage. I could feel the blood drain from my face. I knew something was very wrong. This was not the face of a man reporting that we now had the first teacher in space.

The first thing I heard him say was that the Challenger had exploded shortly after takeoff. It was reinforced by the video showing liftoff and then the explosion anyone my age has burned into their brains.

As soon as I got my wits about me, I grabbed the phone and called the station. Ordinarily, I co-hosted a 90 minute news show that came on at noon. I called my co-host and said, "I'm coming in. We're doing all Challenger. I'll call you back."

I started working the phone, calling contacts, trying to pull together a show while trying to grab a quick shower and make myself half way presentable. Nothing about me was presentable. I was sick and looked the part.

Challenger had special meaning for this area because Hutchinson hosts The Cosmosphere, a space museum with a collection second only to the Smithsonian.

These were the days before we had cordless phones so I drug the phone into the bathroom in case I got a call back while I was in the shower. I did. Thank goodness. It was a man who worked at the Cosmosphere as an educator, who was literally a walking encyclopedia of space information. I asked him if he would be live with us for the whole show and he agreed. I couldn't believe I was lucky enough to get him.

It was a typical example of treating people well. This gentleman was a quiet, unassuming man who had asked me a couple of favors over the years as I had him, and that day I was thrilled we had that kind of a relationship. Because I was asking him for a large favor - an hour and a half of his time on a day when he was being bombarded for requests. He gave me the time because we had had a pleasant, mutually beneficial working relationship over the years.

The news was still breaking as we were on the air. We were ripping AP copy and watching CNN and using every other source we could find. And we were getting insight that no other news media had.

That's one of the things I loved about public radio. I had the freedom to let this gentleman talk for 7 minutes or 15 minutes or 20 minutes. I read the copy, updated the details, recited the facts, and he explained what it all meant. He knew the equipment, the history, the plans. It was great radio. Although I've always hated the reason we were doing great radio, I've always been proud of that day's coverage.

We had grown complacent about the shuttle program then. We didn't even bother to watch them go up. The only reason for the attention was that there was going to be a teacher in space that day.

The country and the rest of the world mourned. And we still do.

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