Last night I was driving home from work and listening to NPR. NPR is one of the things that make my commute bearable. And, yes, I will admit it…more than once I have sat in the garage, or in a parking lot, and waited for a story to end rather than leave a tale half-told.
Often I turn on the radio in the middle of a story, as was the case last night. I heard the word “Challenger” and my mind raced back. I was fourteen when the Challenger disaster happened. My middle school science class was watching the launch live in the classroom. I, home sick, was watching it in my living room. In the 80s, a magical aura still clung to space travel and people stopped to admire the wonderful impossibility of it all.
Seventy-three seconds after the launch, the spacecraft disintegrated over the Atlantic Ocean. It was the first tragedy that I recall seeing play out on television. God knows it hasn’t been the last, but there is something about The Firsts that seem to etch them onto your soul. Perhaps that is why, even now, every time I hear that word… Challenger…my mind always goes back to that cold January morning, with me in my pajamas, my disbelieving eyes glued to the screen.
But that’s only half of the story.
So when I heard the word last night, I paused again. I wanted to hear the other half. I wanted to hear What Happened After. As it turns out, what happened was just as painful and tragic as the accident itself.
I have only seen launches on screen. I have never been privy to the meticulous preparations which they require. I don’t know the myriad of people who are cogs in the giant machine that is NASA. The closest I can imagine is that a launch is an elaborately choreographed dance that requires perfect timing and no missteps.
On January 27th 1986, Bob Ebeling was one of those involved in the dance. He was also one of the engineers who tried to keep Challenger grounded. He was one of the engineers who presented their data and argued for hours that the launch was unsafe, but NASA rejected the data and the men were overruled. The launch would continue.
The NPR story recounts:
“It’s going to blow up,” a distraught and defeated Ebeling told his wife, Darlene, when he arrived home that night.
And it did, 73 seconds after liftoff. Seven astronauts died. Cold weather and an O-ring failure were blamed, and Ebeling carried three decades of guilt.
“That was one of the mistakes God made,” Ebeling, now 89, told me three weeks ago at his home in Brigham City, Utah. “He shouldn’t have picked me for that job. But next time I talk to him, I’m gonna ask him, ‘Why me? You picked a loser.'”
Sitting in my car, hearing the pain in his voice—the self-loathing and condemnation—the weight of his guilt was palpable. I can’t imagine the burden he has carried these past 30 years.
Strange, though, the way guilt works. Sometimes it finds us right after a perceived wrong, and sometimes it ripples just under the surface only to rear its head years later. And guilt, like so many unwelcome guests, never wants to leave. Guilt will linger long after the wrong was paid and repaid. For some, no amount of emotional self-flagellation can atone for the wrongs we wear like a scarlet letter on our soul.
Rather than acknowledging what he did to try to prevent the tragedy, Mr. Ebeling was haunted by that which he could not control.
Part of what always haunted me about this particular tragedy was that one moment the crew was there, and the next minute they were gone. Literally….gone. Disintegrated. Nothing remained but memories. Perhaps, faced with the aftermath, this is why Mr. Ebeling took up the burden of this guilt…not because he had done something wrong, but because he felt someone must take responsibility. So he did. He assumed responsibility. And, like Atlas, he shouldered the burden.
I should have…
Familiar words. I’ve said them so often they are like a mantra. I’ve collected my fair share of guilt over the years–some rightfully earned, some imagined…and some I’ve collected with the sense that someone must carry the story of the wrong–the injustice–forward. If such stories aren’t told and retold then how can we learn from them?
History is a burden. A wonderful, painful burden.
This is why I’ve talked to my children about the Holocaust, even though—at the age of nearly-fourteen—my eldest child’s school has not broached the subject. This is why we have talked about slavery, and school shootings, and genocide, and rape, and so many other painful, horrifying, heart-breaking things. Maybe if we talk about them, we can share the burden. Maybe if we talk about them, we can learn from them.
God bless, you Mr. Ebeling. Thank you for sharing your burden. And tonight, when I gather my children around the table, they’ll hear the tale of a brave man who spoke up and tried to prevent tragedy and, when he couldn’t, who had the grace to carry onward the memories of those lost.
“A burden shared is a burden halved.”
Rest easy, Mr. Ebeling. We’ll carry their memories now.