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Remember the Challenger in these challenging times

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“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’” – President Ronald Reagan speaking after The Challenger disaster and the loss of the seven crew members.

I have a photograph of the crew of the Challenger.

Christa McAuliffe’s mother, Grace Corrigan, sent it to me some years ago and it has stayed with me through several office moves.

As images of that terrible disaster once again flittered across television channels this past Friday, on the 25th anniversary, I took the photo down from my bookshelf and looked at it anew.

It reminds me of how much my idea of this country is tied to the space program.

As an Irish teenager I watched the landing on the moon on a grainy black and white television and thought that surely a country that could put a man on the moon must be the most amazing place on earth.

Of course, my image of America had already been heavily influenced by television Westerns. (Early Irish TV programming was mostly American).

America was a place where you dreamed big dreams, faced down your fears and readied your wagon for a trip into the unknown. It was a place where bad guys came along but the good guys always won.

Going to the moon was just one more evolution in the American story, a chance – forgive the line – to hitch your wagon to a star.

The photo of the crew of the Challenger – fresh faced young Americans of diverse backgrounds – sustains my belief that there is room for all in the American story and no matter your start in life, a chance to succeed.

There’s an African American who overcame segregated education to study physics at MIT, a Japanese American, a Jewish American woman and, of course, our ‘Irish’ Christa (Corrigan) McAuliffe, who was in fact, Irish, Lebanese, German, English, and Native American heritage. In other words, Christa was a true American

In these challenging times, when anti-immigrant slogans are the norm, the Challenger photo is a reminder that diversity is one of America’s greatest strengths, and overcoming prejudice is another.

The space program is also a reminder to us all to take better care of the planet on which we live. Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a space shuttle, when I interviewed her at the Johnson Space Center in Huston, told me “from space it looks as if the earth is burning up” there are so many forest fires.

And in these days, when it sometimes seems as if the bad guys are winning, Scott Kelly’s message from outer space in the wake of the shootings in Tucson is a challenge to us to do better.

He said: “We have a unique vantage point here aboard the International Space Station. As I look out the window I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately it is not. These days we are constantly reminded of the unspeakable acts of violence and damage we can inflict upon one another not just with our actions but also with our irresponsible words. We are better than this. We must do better.”

Scott is the commander of the International Space Station. His identical twin, astronaut Mark Kelly, was scheduled to command Endeavour’s last flight into space in April. Please god his wife, Rep. Gabby Giffords, will continue her recovery and it will be possible for him to make that ride.

It will be an especially poignant mission as, after 30 years and 135 flights, the American shuttle program is drawing to a close. (The Atlantis is scheduled to make the last flight in June).

Following the Challenger disaster Ronald Reagan, captured the hearts and minds of Americans when in a moving broadcast he promised that we would never forget them. He added, “the future doesn’t belong to the faint hearted, it belongs to the brave, the Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we will continue to follow them...”

The end of the space shuttle program marks the end of an era in America. I still believe in my immigrant’s vision of America as a land of opportunity, but who now will lead us into the future?


We must turn our thoughts again to the diversity of the Challenger crew and those early immigrant pioneers who made this country what it is.


A recent program on CBS highlighting today’s pioneers in high tech showed us that they all had something in common – they are all immigrants to America. Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin came from the Soviet Union. German born Andy von Bechtolsheim (one of the first investors in Google) co-founded Sun Microsystems with Vinod Khosla from India. E-Bay was started by Pierre Morad Omidyar who was born in France to Iranian parents, and Jerry Yang, the co founder of Yahoo was born in Taiwan.

So when we look around for a new star to hitch or wagons to we may well find that star is an immigrant. That’s something to think about.

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