David Zahren knew he loved science ever since he was a Boy Scout. There were times when he wanted to do wildlife management and times he wanted to be a veterinarian. Of all the things he thought he would pursue in science, however, sharing his passion for science and inspiring children wasn’t one of them. And he could never have imagined being remarkably close to flying in space on the space shuttle Challenger.
January 28, 1986 was supposed to be a day of triumph and celebration. Americans were supposed to witness one of the most impressive feats of human accomplishment. The Challenger space shuttle mission was going to send the first non-astronaut civilian into space. The lucky winner of President Reagan’s “Teacher in Space” program was going to broadcast a live science lesson to thousands of school children. It was supposed to a celebration of teachers. It was supposed to inspire students and spur an interest in math and science. One lucky teacher was going to go on the adventure of a lifetime. Out of 11,000 applications, David was one of 100 finalists for that opportunity.
Although he wasn’t selected, David was still invited to Cape Canaveral to watch as the final preparations were made and to see the launch live. Delays pushed back the launch date but he had to go home so he ended up watching the launch in a hotel room in Orlando, minutes before his flight. He listened to the NASA controllers count down. He listened as the control room in Houston cheered at liftoff. He watched as the engines ignited and a massive cloud of smoke poured out from the boosters. The craft ascended into the air and began climbing. Higher and higher into space, the rocket chugged along on a smooth trajectory.
That trajectory was violently broken just 73 seconds after liftoff. The explosion did not trail on for a long time. It was quick and it was violent. A single blast that shot different parts of different craft off in a thousand different directions. It was so quick that there was little reaction from the people on the ground. Only when the debris slowly fell from the sky, leaving trails of smoke that originated from a giant cloud, were people able to comprehend what had happened. At Cape Canaveral, slowly but surely, people covered their mouths in shock at the realization of what happened. For David, the shock hit him too but the only thing he could do was go to the airport.
“It was unbelievable. Everyone was in shock. When I stepped on the plane no one was speaking. No one knew what to say. We just sat there contemplating what had happened, whether it had actually happened. Seven Americans had just lost their lives and millions more had witnessed the tragedy unfold in front of their very eyes.”
He thought about a lot of things on that flight. He thought about his friend Christa. He thought about the other crew members and their families. He thought about what would happen with NASA. Would there be another space shuttle launch? Who would want to fly it after what had just happened? Would kids ever be interested in space travel after what they saw? These questions were difficult to answer and David struggled with them.
There were numerous external difficulties that David had to face as a result of Challenger. While the space shuttle program was shut down amidst an endless series of investigations, inquiries, and congressional hearings, NASA’s future looked bleak. They were condemned and the entire blame for Challenger was attributed to their negligence. People talked about shutting down NASA all together. They argued that space travel had become too dangerous and NASA clearly did not know how to properly ensure the protection and safety of brave men and women. The endeavor that David had pursued his whole was being wiped through the dirt and people were beginning to lose faith.
“I had to forget my own doubts to inspire these kids,” David said. As he listened to this, David couldn’t help but remember President Reagan’s tribute from the astronauts’ funerals: “Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.” He had spent 11 years inspiring students to forge their own achievements. He was part of the mission that was going to take civilians closer to the stars than ever before. And unfortunately, it fell short. Now, he was going to be the one to pick up the pieces of Challenger and press on with their mission. He signed up for the NASA space ambassador program, donned a flight suit, and travelled the east coast speaking to classrooms of students about the benefits and future of space flight.
David hasn’t stopped inspiring. For 30 years he’s hosted and produced Science Bowl, an award winning interscholastic game show. Even after asking what he estimates has been close to 50,000 questions during his time as host, the feeling he gets when a kid answers a question correctly is still the same. It’s that feeling that reassures him about believing in science. It tells him that he wasn’t a fool to believe in the goodness of space travel.
Hope isn’t always easy. It’s not easy to maintain belief in things when everything around you goes against it. It was easy for people to point fingers and to focus on the negative aspects of the Challenger disaster. But just because hope wasn’t easy didn’t mean David should abandon it. He had hope that if he gave all his effort into something he truly believed in, no disaster or tragedy would be able to derail it. He had hope that he, an individual teacher, could make a difference in the world. And with hope, it made pressing on worth it in the end.