Reminded by the media that today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, I think not of that event directly, but of how even in the moment of its occurrence in 1986, I registered the horror only distantly, as a background image on TV that followed me throughout the rest of that cold January day. It was not simply my first media event — that useful term coined by Daniel Dayan and Elihu Katz to describe those moments, planned and unplanned, when the screens of the country or the world fixate on a singular happening of shared cultural, historical, or political significance — but the first time I recognized the importance of something alongside my failure to connect with it the way I suspected I should.

I was 19 years old at the time, struggling to find my place at Eastern Michigan University, where I was fitfully taking classes in the Theater Department. (The focusing discipline of English, with a “penance minor” of History, was a year or two in my future.) Shocking events on the national stage had penetrated my consciousness before — I remember whispers leaping like sparks among the nested semicircles of our orchestra chairs the day John Hinckley tried to kill Ronald Reagan in 1981, and when John Lennon died a year before, I stayed up late with the TV, waiting for details to emerge. I even remember, vaguely, being shushed by my family the night in 1978 that news of the Jonestown massacre broke. But whatever organs of emotion were developing inside me had not yet matured enough to apprehend the vastness of collective trauma, to sound along the single string of my soul a thrum of sympathetic resonance with some larger chorus of lament. That would not come for years, until after the profound illness of a close friend and the death of my older brother had broken down and rebuilt my heart in more human form.

But other factors were behind the cold inertia of my feelings the day we lost Challenger. I had drifted from a childhood infatuation with the space program, one fueled by family visits to the National Air and Space Museum and long hours spent poring over books written by and about NASA astronauts. Though I found the Mercury flights too early and primitive to hold my interest, the cool capsule design and paired teamwork of the Gemini program (like going into space with your best friend!) fired my imagination, and the Apollo moon landings were like repeated assaults on Mount Olympus, bold conquests by super-dads wrapped in science-fiction armor. Skylab, under whose orbits I aged from 7 to 12, was like a funky rec room in the sky, a padded cylinder where playful scientists in zero-G did somersaults and wobbled water globes for the cameras, which relayed their bearded grins to us.

By contrast with the alternately goofy and glorious NASA missions of the 60s and early 70s, the Space Shuttle program seemed a retreat into something more pedestrian and timid. The orbiter with its aerodynamic surfaces struck me as being too much like an airplane, a standard streamlined creature of the atmosphere instead of a spiky, boxy, bedished emissary to the stars. Those external fuel tanks turned the coolest part of the show, the rockets, into mere vestigial workhorses, to be dropped away like a shameful secret, disavowed by the pristine delta wing as it did its boring ballet turns — never going anywhere, just cautiously circling the earth, expecting applause each time it landed, though the goal seemed to be to make launches and returns as common and unexceptional as elevator rides. The whole concept, in short, was a triumph of the disposable and interchangeable over the unique and dramatic.

So I stopped paying attention to the shuttle missions, until January 28, 1986, when the predictable, in the space of a few seconds, mutated into the unique and dramatic.

That strangely horned explosion, a forking fireball marking the moment at which a precisely calibrated flightpath dissolved into the chaotic trajectories of system failure, was at first glance reminiscent of the impressive explosions Hollywood had rigged for my awed pleasure — the sabotage of the Death Star, the electrical rapture of the opened Ark of the Covenant, the Nostromo’s timed destruction — and it took much repetition and analysis for me to begin to grasp the semiotics of this particular combustion. Challenger, for me and maybe for a lot of people, was the beginning of an education in explosions, and over the decades that followed, I thought back to its incendiary lessons: Waco in 1993, Oklahoma City in 1995. The USS Cole in 2000, Columbia over Texas in 2003. And that master class in the forensics of fiery disaster, September 11, 2001.

I don’t think I’m building to any profound point here; indeed, writing about such moments makes me unhappily aware of how provincial and shallow my thinking about spectacle can be. Scenes of death, wrapped in the double abstractions of physical laws and media presentation, are still hard for me to feel, though — scored into my optics — they are never hard to remember.

Beep … Beep … Beep …


The Soviet satellite Sputnik, launched fifty years ago today, is stitched into my family history in an odd way. A faded Polaroid photograph from that year, 1957, shows my older siblings gathered in the living room in my family’s old house. The brothers and sisters I would come to know as noisily lumbering teenage creatures who alternately vied for my attention and pounded me into the ground are, in the image, blond toddlers messing around with toys. There also happens to be a newspaper in the frame. On its front page is the announcement of Sputnik’s launch.

Whatever the oblique and contingent quality of this captured moment — one time-stopping medium (newsprint) preserved within another (the photograph) — I’ve always been struck by how it layers together so many kinds of lost realities, realities whose nature and content I dwell upon even though, or because, I never knew them personally. Sputnik’s rhythmically beeping trajectory through orbital space echoes another, more idiomatic “outer space,” the house where my family lived in Ann Arbor before I was born (in the early 1960s, my parents moved across town to a new location, the one that I would eventually come to know as home). These spaces are not simply lost to me, but denied to me, because they existed before I was born.

Which is OK. Several billion years fall into that category, and I don’t resent them for predating me, any more than I pity the billions to come that will never have the pleasure of hosting my existence. (I will admit that the only time I’ve really felt the oceanic impact of my own inevitable death was when I realized how many movies [namely all of them] I won’t get to see after I die.) If I’m envious of anything about that family in the picture from fall 1957, it’s that they got to be part of all the conversations and headlines and newspaper commentaries and jokes and TV references and whatnot — the ceaseless susurration of humanity’s collective processing — that accompanied the little beeping Russian ball as it sliced across the sky.

As a fan of the U.S. space program, I didn’t think I really cared that much about Sputnik until I caught a story from NPR on today’s Morning Edition, which profiled the satellite’s designer, Sergei Korolev. One of Korolev’s contemporaries, Boris Chertok, relates how Sputnik’s shape “was meant to capture people’s imagination by symbolizing a celestial body.” It was the first time, to be honest, I’d thought about satellites being designed as opposed to engineered — shaped by forces of fashion and signification rather than the exigences of physics, chemistry, and ballistics. One of the reasons I’ve always liked probes and satellites such as the Surveyor moon probe, the Viking martian explorer, the classic Voyager, and my personal favorite, the Lunar Orbiter 1 (pictured here), is that their look seemed entirely dictated by function.


Free of extras like tailfins and raccoon tails, flashing lights and corporate logos, our loyal emissaries to remoteness like the Mariner or Galileo satellites possessed their own oblivious style, made up of solar panels and jutting antennae, battery packs and circuit boxes, the mouths of reaction-control thrusters and the rotating faces of telemetry dishes. Even the vehicles built for human occupancy — Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo capsules — I found beautiful, or in the case of Skylab or the Apollo missions’ Lunar Module, beautifully ugly, with their crinkled reflective gold foil, insectoid angles, and crustacean asymmetries. My reverence for these spacefaring robots wasn’t limited to NASA’s work, either: when the Apollo-Soyuz docking took place in 1975 ( I was nine years old then, equidistant from the Sputnik launch that bracketed my 1966 birthday), it was like two creatures from the deep sea getting it on — literally bumping uglies.


So the notion that Sputnik’s shape was supposed to suggest something, “symbolizing a celestial body,” took me at first by surprise. But I quickly came to embrace the idea. After all, the many fictional space- and starships that have obsessed me from childhood — the Valley Forge in Silent Running, the rebel X-Wings and Millennium Falcon from Star Wars, the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the Eagles from Space 1999, and of course the U.S.S. Enterprise from Star Trek — are, to a one, the product of artistic over technical sensibilities, no matter how the modelmakers might have kit-bashed them into verisimilitude. And if Sputnik’s silver globe and backswept antennae carried something of the 50s zeitgeist about it, it’s but a miniscule reflection of the satellite’s much larger, indeed global, signification: the galvanizing first move in a game of orbital chess, the pistol shot that started the space race, the announcement — through the unbearably lovely, essentially passive gesture of free fall, a metal ball dropping endlessly toward an earth that swept itself smoothly out of the way — that the skies were now open for warfare, or business, or play, as humankind chooses.

Happy birthday, Sputnik!