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Reflections on a space disaster

by Hal Higdon

I first learned I might ride the space shuttle when I checked my answering machine and encountered 37 messages. It was the summer of 1985. I was in Wisconsin on a magazine assignment, interviewing Norm Green at a church camp for an article in The Runner magazine. I pulled off the road to use a phone booth en route home. This was in the era before cell phones.

The messages were requests for interviews: everyone from Newsweek to Newsday to News Radio. NASA had just released the names of the final candidates to become Journalist-in-Space. Five thousand media members had requested applications. Two thousand actually applied. One hundred journalists made the first cut. Walter Cronkite and I plus ninety-eight others.

Science wasn't my normal beat, although as a kid I enjoyed reading about space exploration, beginning with H.G.Wells and Thrilling Wonder Stories, a pulp magazine. I was a generalist reporter covering politics, business, celebrities, fitness, anything that sold including one children's book on space. As running grew in popularity, I shifted more and more of my writing into that era.

Maybe I didn't have Cronkite's credentials, but who did?

15 minutes of fame

I spent the next week looking into cameras and talking into microphones. Six months later, the same reporters called again to probe my reactions to Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe's having died when Challenger exploded. My comments during this second 15-minute dose of fame were less buouant.

Now, seventeen years after that tragedy, the loss of Columbia rekindles painful memories. Shock. Horror. Tears. Sorrow. Nausea. The realization that it could have been me.

The second cut in 1986 among shuttle candidates was to forty. I traveled to Iowa City for interviews and was chosen, along with Walter Cronkite, to continue. The next cut to five was in Washington with the final decision to be made at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. I figured that if Cronkite and I got into a showdown, I had the edge in fitness. Though age fifty-four, I was still running marathons under three hours and competing in triathlons.

I'll never know if I would have been chosen, because NASA allowed the Journalist-in-Space program to lapse.

Space launch

Disappointed, I let the space program slip to the recesses of my mind--as did many Americans. Then several years ago, we bought a condo in Florida, near the ocean east of Jacksonville. My wife and I were coming up from the beach one afternoon and noticed a crowd. I asked why. "Space launch," someone explained.

We were two hours north of Cape Canaveral by car. I didn't expect to see much, but then I spotted the vapor trail of a shuttle shooting into space. A chill gripped me. I recalled lost dreams.

Chance often dictates our fates. In the Army, the military transport bound for Europe before mine crashed in a rainstorm. Driving with our kids in the car, we sideswiped a deer that had it appeared a second earlier might have crashed through our windshield. Three thousand people lost their lives at the World Trade Center, because they arrived for work early.

Few of us can predict our hour of death, but we would like to go with dignity--and maybe go quickly. Riding to the Rome Airport in 1985 after the World Masters Championships, I sat next to Paul Spangler. A runner in his eighties, he had won several gold medals. "My goal is to run until I'm a hundred," Spangler informed me.

He never made it. A few days before his ninety-fifth birthday, Spangler dropped dead of a heart attack while running. A lot of runners who knew Paul Spangler thought, "That's the way to go! Doing what he loved most."

What better can you say about the Columbia astronauts than they died on top of the world, doing what they loved most. Space exploration will continue, but everyone who comes later will stand on their shoulders. If you don't believe me, just ask Walter Cronkite.

Hal Higdon is a Senior Writer for Runner's World and author of The Team That Played in the Space Bowl. This essay originally appeared on that magazine's website.