The hat hangs in the back hall alongside a dozen others, faded but still shockingly blue. I don’t wear it much anymore, but I’ve never considered tossing it, either. It has survived nearly 35 years of moves, from middle school to high school to college to apartments and finally a house.
I see it every day coming and going, and it invariably sparks the same visceral sadness and the same thought: 150,000 pieces of equipment – each bought from the lowest bidder.
That’s an admittedly strange thing to think when looking at a NASA hat, but this isn’t any NASA hat.
It is my Christa McAuliffe hat, and 33 years ago today, it transformed from a symbol of hope and possibility into a talisman of unspeakable sadness and tragedy.
You needn’t have been standing at the bus stop in your NASA hat that morning 33 years ago like me when my friend George relayed the devastating news to recognize the impact of his death on the country. But all these years later, what’s hard to understand unless you were there is how profoundly we felt that loss.
Each detail that emerged about the Challenger crew’s final hours made us want to stop time and undo any one of about 20 bad decisions, as if reading and re-reading the details would allow us to spot the moment when they could retroactively be saved.
I never did toss the hat. I wore it throughout high school and college, and I still occasionally wear it today. There are Facebook photos of me wearing it in 1988 and 1995, and I’ve donned it least once in every one of the last 33 years. I’m wearing it now as I type.
We had lost spacemen before, of course, in training accidents and the ‘Apollo 3’, Chappie, White, and Grissom But the losses sting just as severely and can leave an even more lasting impression.
No loss has proven more enduring, however, than McAuliffe. I’m 46 now, and every time I look at that hat, I feel the same pangs of sorrow that wracked me at 13. What if shuttle Challenger had survived? How much longer might manned spaceflight have continued? Would STS-51’s brush with death have scared NASA straight enough to prevent a similar tragedy to shuttle Columbia in 2002? How many missions might Christa have flown? What kind of life might she lived? What kind of astronaut might she be?
No two words haunt us more than, “What if?” and for my generation, anyway, Christa embodies the existential despair of that question like no one else.
Those thoughts and so many more flash every time I look at that hat, weathered and faded, hanging by my back door.
So why keep it?
Because some things are worth holding on to.
first in a continuing series.