The anniversaries of space disasters

The anniversaries of America’s three major space disasters occur on the same week. That fact is disconcerting, to say the least. The Apollo I fire on the ground, the space shuttle Challenger explosion shortly after lift-off, and the space shuttle Columbia disintegration on its landing approach happened on January 26, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 (respectively).

The thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger explosion brings back memories of that time. My first reaction to the news was disbelief; then I watched television coverage all afternoon. I saw replays of the explosion again and again, interspersed with speculation about what went wrong and reactions to the tragedy. President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the nation that evening. I still feel it was one of his finer speeches. In the following days I wrote a song in tribute to the crew of seven, borrowing some of the phrases and expressions I found meaningful in the President’s speech.

My relationship with my guitar tends to run hot and cold. Sometimes I will practice every night in a row for several weeks, and sometimes the guitar will sit untouched for months. One time I failed to use the guitar for so long that it actually broke—the tension of the strings pulled apart the soundboard. A few months later the members of my family gathered enough money to give me cash for my birthday to buy a new guitar. Now I try to get it out and use it at least once a month.

When I bought my new guitar, I got out some of the songs I had written to relearn them. Generally all I had was a sheet of paper with the lyrics and the guitar chords. When I came to “Keep Flying High,” my tribute to the Challenger crew, I played the chords but couldn’t remember the tune. Disappointed in myself, I set the paper aside and worked on the other songs. One day the following week a tune sprang into my head. For a while I didn’t recognize it; suddenly I realized that it was the missing tune to “Keep Flying High.” I made sure then to practice the song so words and chords and tune would remain together in my memory.

The day my mother died, I was in the midst of a string of weeks during which I was practicing the guitar and singing my own music almost every evening. The morning of that day, “Keep Flying High” kept going through my head. Especially the bridge* kept repeating inside my head. Oddly enough, I was hearing the song not as I perform it, with voice and rhythm guitar, but with the words accompanied by arpeggios.* No doubt the words themselves were fitting—“When you leave this surly sphere, reach out and touch God’s face. Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” (The words were inspired by the President’s speech about the Challenger tragedy. He said, “We shall never forget them nor the last time we saw them, as they prepared for their mission and waved good-bye and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.” Those words, in turn, were inspired by John Gillespie Magee, Jr’s poem “High Flight.”) The oddity was hearing my song in an arrangement I had never created. I still think of my mother every time I sing that song.

When I was a boy, I followed the space program fervently. I wish our country had some mission today that could lead to the same sort of triumph that Americans felt when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Seventeen astronauts died in America’s three space program disasters. Of course every human death is tragic. Every person is a hero or has the potential to become a hero. The shock of a sudden, violent, and public death makes the news and often the history books. In response, though, we remember the death that mattered most of all. We remember the death of God’s Son, the death that conquered death forever. “Confide in Him and have no fear: He’s suffered in your place.” J.

 

*BRIDGE: In a song that has verses and a repeated chorus, the bridge appears as a third theme that complements the other two themes. It can also be a second theme in a song with verses but no chorus. The “why she had to go…” part of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” is a good example of a bridge.

*ARPEGGIO: Sometimes called a “broken chord,” an arpeggio is a series of notes played one by one which could be combined as a chord. Harp music often is performed as a combination of chords and arpeggios.

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