Friday, 28 January 2011

The Challenger Space Shuttle Disaster and the Poem "High Flight"

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God'."
-- President Ronald Reagan, quoting the famous and moving poem "High Flight," written by an American who died serving in WWII with the Royal Canadian Air Force, John Gillespie Magee Jr. after the Challenger space shuttle disaster, 28 January, 1986
It is strange for me to think that an event 25 years ago, one that I remember very clearly, is now, in a real sense, "history." Television reports and internet twitter feeds recalled the story of the Challenger disaster that enfolded live to a shocked world audience in 1986. The astronauts were remembered, particularly Christa McAuliffe who was drafted into the shuttle crew under the Teacher in Space Project.

[John Gillespie Magee Jr.'s grave, England]

The poem quoted by President Reagan was penned by John Gillespie Magee Jr., an American poet and aviator who had joined the Canadian Air Force to take part in combat in Europe prior to the U.S. joining the war. He perished, age 21, in an air crash just 4 days after the attack on Pearl Harbour brought the U.S. into the war. He penned the moving poem about flight and the pursuit of the air months before his death, sending it back in the U.S. in a letter to his parents. By chance it became circulated, known, and after his death was included in an exhibition at the Library of Congress:

"High Flight"
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 


Michael said...

I too remember the Challenger disaster vividly, recalling both Reagan's eloquent response and its sobering effect on America's space-themed pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver. Coincidentally, one of the thrill rides at the exposition was the shuttle-themed "Looping Starship." If memory serves, the attraction's original name evoked NASA's shuttle program and had to be replaced with the more generic sobriquet after the disaster. I wonder if Challenger was my generation's Titanic -- a tragedy beyond the scope of our imaginations that forced a reassessment of our faith in technology. Perhaps every generation has its Icarus moment.

IdleHistorian said...

For some reason I don't remember that Expo 86 ride at all -- but yes, it was a shocking event for the youth of that generation. As you term it, an "Icarus moment."

Lucy said...

I often think of children looking up to the sky and seeing their teacher die. I also wonder how they have lived their lives since - though it's that moment - realisation of disaster - which seems to have been frozen in time.


IdleHistorian said...

Thanks for your comment, Lucy. They showed a piece on the television about one of Christa McAuliffe's acquaintances who also became a teacher and, in fact, teaches in the same classroom she did -- where she is fondly remembered. Though it was terribly tragic, it is a least nice to think that her example and memory have brought some good.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...