I was in grade school when the Challenger blew up after launch. A bunch of us were huddled in a classroom watching the coverage on a TV that had been wheeled in to the front of the room. When it exploded the teachers gasped and someone turned the TV off and ushered us all to the gym. We had no idea what was going on. We didn’t even realize it had blown up.
When we got to the gym, our gym teacher huddled with a couple of the other teachers and then went into the supply closet to get the most cherished and revered tool in his arsenal: the parachute. When we saw it bundled in his hands, that’s when we knew something was seriously wrong.
A few of the kids were volunteered to help unfold the brightly colored fabric while the rest of us stood on the periphery, the realization that something terrible must have happened slowly settling into our tiny grade school minds. The parachute was a once a year spectacle, the rest of the time we pleaded and begged to play with it and were thoroughly rebuked.
The gym teacher was coaxing everyone to grab an edge and we did, clutching the thin, ripstop fabric in our tiny hands, lifting it up and then pulling it back down again. I started to wonder why we loved the parachute so much and then he let one of the kids roll into the center of the fabric and we whipped the parachute around him as he rolled and giggled. The walls of the tiny gym echoed with shouts and laughter. Years later, when I think about this moment, I imagine the other teachers were probably clustered together, crying about the first teacher picked to go into space never making it out of earth’s atmosphere.
My mom explained what happened when I got home. It was her birthday and she spent the day watching the news. She told me something had gone wrong and the shuttle had blown up almost immediately. The news was reporting they didn’t suffer, they likely died immediately. But that isn’t true. When they recovered the parts from the shuttle, they could see switches in positions they wouldn’t have been in for launch. Switches that would have been switched as the crew tried desperately, and in vain, to change their fate.
One of the many mysteries of life is assuming you know what you would do in a crisis only to be surprised when the crisis emerges. Would you run into the burning building or would you run away. Would you freeze, or spring into action? Self-preservation is our most basic instinct and is regulated by fear of pain and death. So would you do when faced with a life or death situation? Could you override your instinct to preserve yourself in favor of preserving the life of another?