Rocket Ship: Tragedy and the Collective Unconscious During the Space Age

There are many historical events that you only remember when you read about them in books. History is crowded with happenings that once grabbed headlines, only to become faded and forgotten. Then there are events that affect people so deeply that they do not need historians to remember them; instead, they live on as dramatic, even calamitous, episodes in our collective memory.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies high above Cape Canaveral, the twin arcs of billowing smoke that separated into oblivion as the ship splintered into fiery debris, the men and women who gave their lives to the pursuit of scientific exploration immediately entered the realm of heroes. More specifically, they are heroes in the sense that their lives and especially deaths were extraordinary.

The cataclysm that occurred on Tuesday, January 28, 1986 may have taken place on an ordinary day of the work week, under good weather conditions, and may have been the result of something as mundane as an “o-ring failure” in a booster rocket; but the event itself, a tragedy broadcast around the world, was anything but ordinary or mundane.

Humanity was witness to this immense breakdown in technology, which cost the lives of the entire crew, causing trauma to innumerable people. The Challenger destruction was the Hindenburg crashing down in flames, the Titanic sinking into the icy Atlantic, and, in a sense, the Tower of Babel struck down by God. It is the stuff of myth and oral tradition. For even in an age of electronic mass communication there is still a place and a need for memory and storytelling. As such, whenever tragedies are revisited, they inspire an array of recollections and remembrances of where one was, what one saw and felt, and what it teaches us about our world.

On a very personal note, when I view the footage from that long ago winter day, I’m fascinated by the patina that the images have taken on as they have aged through the decades. Looking at the Challenger disintegrate as the men and women of Mission Control look on helplessly, the images look as if they could easily be from another decade. Is it really 1986? The images have faded a little into a dreamlike haziness. I think for a moment, “I know I saw this live on TV, but this video looks like it’s from the 70s, maybe even the 60s.” There’s a Zapruder quality to the video now. At the same time, I watch and remember. It’s 1986 and I’m twenty-four years old, at home and watching the shuttle ascend into the heavens.

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