Jim Klobuchar - Coming Back to Earth
Atlantis touched down smoothly and historically, the last of the shuttle flights. Standing in front of my television screen I applauded, joining unseen millions of others across the country.
I also experienced at that moment a wistful might-have been in my own life, a prospect almost too good to be real, a flight into space and infinity for which I was suddenly eligible.
But here was Atlantis rolling along the runway, its crew relieved and proud. It astronauts had flown superbly and accomplished one last mission. The crew was safe. Over their more than 40 years of exploration, most of the space flights had been touched with a fairy tale quality that appealed not only to our pride of country but to our sense of wonderment that we could now actually reach for horizons that were once of the province of sorcerers and science fiction.
But now, the adventure was ending to allow some serious re-examination and search. It will be renewed when the country’s rattled economy can afford it, undoubtedly with goals even more exotic than orbiting space stations and far beyond the moon. They would carry Americans perhaps to the planets and even deeper into space. But like millions of others welcoming the safe arrival of Atlantis, I remembered the spaceship Discovery, disintegrating less than an hour from home, and years earlier the explosion of the Challenger. They reminded all of us once more that the underside of adventure and exploration is risk, and neither the finest scientific minds on earth nor trillions of dollars in technology and research can guarantee success when we lift ourselves into an hypnotic but still alien world, on machines that are marvelous but imperfect.
And then I remembered a day late in 1985, and a notification I received from NASA, the country’s space agency. NASA had embarked on a program to add selected civilians to the professional shuttle crew. It was a candid effort to bring the story of space flight closer to the public by opening it to people representing a variety of civilian disciplines—like teachers, and journalists.
NASA had already selected a teacher, Crista McAuliffe, to inaugurate the program. Sometime while her flight was in preparation, NASA invited journalists in a wide range of media—newspapers, television, radio, magazine and more. In applying, I had never honestly considered the risk. The prospect was too enticing for that. You would be going not only as a passenger but as a performing member of the crew, broadcasting the experience, describing the sensation of space flight, weightlessness, interviewing the astronauts, and conveying the pure spectacle of space.
NASA received 1,700 applications.We wrote papers describing our conception of the role and what we considered our qualifications. I was a newspaper columnist and had been a host of television and radio talk shows, flew light planes for 10 years and parachuted recreationally a few times. NASA was looking for prior experience in stressful situations and so I added my years in mountain climbing. We also were asked to write a visualization of our role on the mission, what we thought would be of highest value to the public in our reportage. NASA conducted a series of eliminations to narrow the field of prospects, culminating in regional conferences in which the applicants were grilled by an interrogation panel made up of men and women drawn from a variety of academic and technical fields. The final eliminations were to be conducted in Houston. We were down to 34 applicants. Walter Cronkite, the great broadcaster so synonymous with space flight, was one of them, and the man who would have been my favorite hands-down. Some time before Houston, George (Pinky) Nelson an astronaut who had flown in space three times, visited the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for which I wrote, and gave me a glimpse from space. The one prominent earthly feature you could see, he said, was the 4,000 mile African Rift, spreading from Syria to South Africa—where I had hiked a few years before. He was encouraging. I was starting to think about Houston.
A few months later I walked into the newspaper’s photo lab where there was a television screen. The Challenger with Crista McAuliffe aboard had just launched. It spiraled upward, ignoring gravity, reaching into space. Beautiful , I said to a colleague. But moments later a thin column of smoke snaked through the sky from the top of the television set. The spaceship was breaking up. We stood and watched, unable to speak.
I wrote for the next day’s paper. For years, I said, we had convinced ourselves that telemetry and mission controls had introduced us to so many marvels ofthe human mind and spirit that somehow they were all going to have happy endings for smiling and modest heroes.
“The thought of risk and catastrophe rarely intruded on the show. It may explain why the country’s grief is so profound when it does. So far has the spaceflight technology progressed. The launch, the rocketry—so far that it was now possible to put ordinary people into the heavens and the unknown…”
I never did receive a formal notice from NASA that there would be no journalist in space. The reason was too obvious.