“How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life.”
—Captain Kirk, from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
I’ve been a fan of science fiction since childhood. As a kid, there was no adventure more thrilling than a Star Wars movie or a television show like [the original] Battlestar Galactica.
But equal to that excitement was the thrill of sci-fi becoming reality before my young eyes. Astronauts were already able to go to the moon and back, satellites were being launched to voyage to the deepest parts of our solar system, and special spaceship “shuttles” were bringing travelers into space like airplanes.
As a child in Florida, this was especially amazing. I could actually go to Cape Canaveral and witness this for myself if I wanted to. I watched every flight eagerly, shuttle launch after shuttle launch on cable television, a tiny bit of my dreams coming true every time it blasted off.
And then one day in 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded across the skies.
It was as though part of me shattered right alongside it, my dreams and hopes of the future scatter-shot against the cosmos. From outside my elementary school classroom I could see the distant trails of smoke, and suddenly it was all very real to me. The fantasy was deflated; my heart was broken. I couldn’t possibly recover.
Don’t laugh, but this makes me think of ’80s television icon Punky Brewster.
You see, there was this episode of Punky Brewster that did the wonderful job of bringing me some kind of closure. It began pre-Challenger when Punky’s class is having career day with students dressing up as the occupation they want when they are older. Punky comes to class dressed as an astronaut, and the entire class is abuzz with excitement.
Then days later, the explosion happens. The class is scared and distraught, & the teacher sits them in a circle to talk have them about their feelings. It was as though the writers reached right into my broken heart and put on-screen every devastating thing I had been feeling about the accident. A crestfallen Punky, called crazy for still wanting to be an astronaut, ponders giving up on her dream.
But when her teacher brings Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin to speak with her about the courage of the Challenger crew, Punky’s dreams come roaring back to life. The next day, I think every kid in my class came to school wanting to be an astronaut. And so did I.
Now obviously, I never became an astronaut—but I did learn the important lesson to never abandon your aspirations just because of a setback, and I realized that every day and every action has not only its risks, but its potential for adventure as well.
So I ask: when faced with disaster, do you stand back, paralyzed by fear? or do you step boldly forward and embrace the pure potentiality of the unknown?
It can be a real struggle, absolutely—but today, on the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, I am reminded of an imaginative little boy in South Florida, one of his favorite television characters, and of the seven dreamers who achieved immortality amongst the stars.
Without our dreams, who are we really?