This morning, as the TV repeated the video of the daylight meteor shower over Texas, I watched my one-year-old son playing on the floor and wondered if he would ever ask me about today. A staple of grade school historians, "national tragedies" are ready-made segues for inter-generational bonding. Ubiquitous media never hurts; while I’ve asked my grandfather where he was when he learned of Pearl Harbor, it never occurred to me to ask where he was when the Hindenburg went up. Perhaps it’s the element of human villainy that transforms catastrophe into infamy.
Nevertheless, I will always remember January 28, 1986, if only because my high school class was interrupted and we were all permitted to watch CNN for the remainder of the period. More enduring than the shock of that morning was the frustration and loathing for the craven bureaucrats who used the occasion to make political hay and to defer the dream of exploration.
While I feel an undertow of that same dread today, I find my thoughts turning not to Challenger or Apollo I but to Pathfinder, which I vividly remember tracking on the Web and watching on TV. Tellingly, I was no less excited for the fact that it was a robot and not a human taking the risks; it was sheer technological geekiness on display, the same geekiness that saved the day on Apollo XIII. I was eleven months old for Apollo XI, and I like to think my parents convinced me to watch Armstrong step off into history. I won’t forget Columbia, but in a few years I hope my son asks me about how cool it was to watch a Lego Mindstorms kit roll about the Martian landscape, and perhaps one day he’ll go bring it back.