Seventeen years, four days.
When I wrote earlier this week about the anniversary of the Challenger accident, I remembered that one of the reasons it was so shocking was that we had grown accustomed to the certainty of the shuttle launches. It was standard. It was expected. It was - *yawn* - boring. As I mentioned, only one station in the Los Angeles area was even covering the Challenger launch on January 28, 1986. I had to change channels so I could watch it live. It was no longer "news worthy."
And now again, we are shocked and horrified - and we grieve. We tend to believe that the Shuttle is infallible, and a sure thing. We don't realize that it is still an experiment, an exploration, an uncertain step into the unknown.
But even as I say that, the death of a shuttle hits so much harder than most other events. Planes crash, trains derail, buildings burn, and we are worried and saddened. The number of casualties in such events are often far, far greater than seven.
So why does this hit us in a different way?
I guess it's because so much of our American psyche is wrapped up in the space program. We demand that our cars and food and drugs be tested over and over to make sure that they are safe before we trust them. But we pin our dreams and hopes as a nation and as a species to the symbolic gesture of exploring the heavens without having a guarantee of success. And perhaps that's why we do - you can't invest your dreams in something that doesn't reach beyond what you already know.
One of my clients, Rick Hauck, is a former Navy test pilot and Shuttle Astronaut. He belongs to an organization called the Association of Space Explorers. We call them astronauts and cosmonauts, but that's really what they are: space explorers. They worked and trained to get to the point where they could strap themselves onto the top of a 835,000 gallon fuel can and couldn't wait for the fuse to be lit so they could go where no one had been before. With no guarantees that they would get there.
In a bit of a surreal twist, Rick has been on television on NBC and MSNBC all day, providing commentary and information on the shuttle program and his experiences. A voice and a face that I am so familiar with is now coming to me live with Brian Williams on my TV set, helping all of us to try to understand what happened.
And why it hurts so much.