Goodbye, Baikonur

And then all was over. The schoolteacher –the symbol of progress and hope for tomorrow– and her six companions, were dead. No more fantasies, no more Cape Canaveral, no more Baikonur…

A drawing made by a first-grade student is shown on January 31, 1986. The student's class at the Our Lady of Lourdes School in Melbourne, Florida, was asked to draw what they thought happened to the space shuttle Challenger and the people aboard. Thom Baur/AP
A drawing made by a first-grade student is shown on January 31, 1986. The student’s class at the Our Lady of Lourdes School in Melbourne, Florida, was asked to draw what they thought happened to the space shuttle Challenger and the people aboard. Thom Baur/AP

There Was a Teacher in There

“Go back to your room”, muttered grandma with a faltering voice when she noticed me on the sofa. But it was too late. I couldn’t stop staring at the screen, horror stamped in my eyes forever.

“The people of Cuba cannot repress their sensitivity to this tragedy”, finished the presenter; and we all remained silent, watching in disbelief, while the scorpion-shaped blast replayed on our old Soviet TV in a painful, unforgettable loop.

“There was a teacher in there.” Said grandma breaking the silence; and then she paused and sobbed: “There was a teacher and ALL of her students were watching this… Oh, my God!” And her voice broke.

It was the evening of Tuesday, January 28th, 1986. Nine hours earlier, the Challenger had broken apart off the coast of Cape Canaveral killing all seven crew members.

Space Shuttle Challenger explodes shortly after take-off.

Shattered Dreams

Being eight and a half years old at the time, I couldn’t fully comprehend the extent of the tragedy we’ve just witnessed, let alone the deep mark this event would leave in the lives of millions of people all around the globe. But I have never forgotten that look on my grandma’s face. In that moment, her eyes in tears taught me more than any school did for the rest of my life.

There were two things, however, I realized after the initial impact. First, my desire for traveling to space someday had vanished away. Second, I knew I’d have to write a good report to discuss it the next day at school.

My first thought after watching the news was that I didn’t wanna be a cosmonaut anymore, neither a pilot nor anything that had to do with traveling two feet above the ground. My dearest childhood fantasy had been torn apart with the Challenger: До свидания, Байконур (Goodbye, Baikonur).

This sudden reaction had a lot to do with my education. Born and raised in Soviet triumphalism, I didn’t even suspect a tragedy like this could ever happen. In my young mind, space exploration could only lead to success, victory, and progress. Cosmonauts were invincible superhumans that had pioneered in all fields. Accidents associated with Soviet space flight were lightly (or not at all) covered by Cuban mainstream media. Back in 1986, only Gagarin, Tereshkova, Leonov, and Tamayo were allowed to enter our schools’ curricula.

I was far from knowing that the Soviets already held the record for some of the worst space disasters (and for the most impressive cover-ups in history). We never learned about the 1960 Nedelin Catastrophe (when testing not a spacecraft but an intercontinental missile). Little was told in Cuba about the 1980 Plesetsk launch pad accident. It was after the late stages of Gorbachev’s Glasnost that, in horror and disbelief, we learned about these events.

On the other hand, by 1986 every single American misfortune was carefully magnified and utilized as proof of Soviet superiority (training accidents, the Apollo 1 crew, the odyssey of Apollo 13, and so on). In addition, the entire U.S. Space Program was referred to as an effort to militarize space, American astronauts were considered “soldiers”, and Ronald Reagan the global supervillain. It was a race with a predetermined winner: the USSR. Evilness and defeat were solely reserved for the Americans and their friends in the capitalist bloc.

However, none of the previous accidents we were familiar with had the magnitude of the Challenger. Seven lives had been lost in a matter of minutes, including a civilian: the first teacher in space. More than an accident, it was a catastrophe. Nobody at home and none of our neighbors dared to say a word against the Shuttle; not even Reagan was mentioned. The “enemies”, the “soldiers” had suddenly gained human faces; and the black and white in our minds started to gain colors.

But, what would happen at school the next day? How would our teachers frame this tragedy?

Teachers and students from McAuliffe's school in New Hampshire gasp in shock and tears as they watch the debris fall from the sky after the explosion. (The New York Times/ Keith Meyers)
Teachers and students from McAuliffe’s school in New Hampshire gasp in shock and tears as they watch the debris fall from the sky after the explosion. (The New York Times/ Keith Meyers)

My Report

Back in the 1980s, it was an “unwritten” rule for Cuban kids to report on the news every morning in class. It was done individually and the selection was completely random. Any kid could be asked questions about the previous evening broadcast. Kids that dared not to be informed were considered ideologically defective.

By news, I mean a carefully edited broadcast transmitted simultaneously at 8:30 PM on the (only) two channels of the Cuban National Television. This “editing” followed a simple rule: most good news from the Socialist Bloc and most bad news from the Capitalist Bloc. The rest of the program consisted of lists of over-fulfilled economic goals, celebrations of patriotic anniversaries, and neverending Castro’s speeches. Being informed, on the other hand, meant repeating whatever the news presenter said. No additions and no improvising were admitted. Spontaneous manifestations were immediately punished and/or ridiculed by the teachers and/or other children.

Consequently, my second thought on that evening was my school report for the next day. I knew I needed to summarize everything I’d just watched. So, as soon as the broadcast finished, I went back to my room and began working on it. I started by replicating the words of the presenter: “the Cuban people today is with the American people, grieving for the loss of the astronauts”. Then, I realized most of the kids would be saying exactly the same words. I tore to pieces my first draft and decided to highlight something different: I’d write about the teacher, the one that made my grandma broke in tears.

Since previous months, the Cuban TV had announced the participation of a high school teacher in the Challenger mission. It was so unprecedented that they couldn’t hide it from our news. Christa McAuliffe had been selected among thousands of applicants to become the first teacher in space. She was expected to conduct science experiments for her students and to give a tour of the spacecraft. She would also teach a lesson from orbit, a lesson that would be broadcasted to millions of schoolchildren. A teacher in space was the coolest thing we’ve ever heard!

Since Christa didn’t fit at all the stereotype of the “astronaut soldier”, her image could not be so easily bogged down by Cuban or Soviet propaganda. There was nothing “wrong” with her. As a result, very soon, she conquered the hearts of many Cubans. But if someone was really excited about her, that was my grandma. She couldn’t stop talking about how brave “la maestra” was; she couldn’t stop praising how cool it would be for her students to have a cosmonaut teacher. “Can you imagine, Javier? She’ll show them how bright and blue the Earth looks like from out there. Can you imagine how many kids will be inspired by her, traveling to the stars one day, like you…

And then all was over. The schoolteacher –the symbol of progress and hope for tomorrow– and her six companions were dead. No more fantasies, no more Cape Canaveral, no more Baikonur. Her dream and the dream of millions of kids had lasted only seconds, and nobody knew why. That night, I kept writing and writing and writing till I fell asleep, holding my Vostok spacecraft plastic model.

Into the Future

Six weeks later, the remains of the seven astronauts were found at the bottom of the ocean. Grandma cried again that evening.

In the next weeks and months, the Cuban TV continued reporting on the U.S. investigation and many people tried to keep track of it: O-rings, cold temperatures, and hasty decisions became familiar topics on our screen. NASA was blamed for pressing on the launching to go ahead. Answers led to more questions, tears led to more tears. There was a particular question people kept asking: Why didn’t they have an emergency escape system? We knew about these things on the Soyuz rockets, but the Shuttle had no individual ejection seats nor a crew escape capsule. There was no adequate equipment to save the crew in the event of a major accident. With nothing to survive, the only things they could do were fall and die. The seven astronauts slowly turned from heroes to victims.

A  guard carries the remains of Christa McAuliffe from a plane to a hearse at Dover Air Force Base. (The Boston Globe/Janet Knott/1986)

In the following months, news on the tragedy gradually faded away from Cuban media. Everyone kept going with their lives and people forgot about everything. From time to time, grandma mentioned the teacher. But there were other more pressing issues going around. Obscure, unfamiliar words started permeating our news: Perestroika and Glasnost took some by surprise and alarmed many others.

We wouldn’t know anything else about Shuttles until almost three years later, in the fall of 1988. Then, suddenly, our TV was flooded with news from both Cold War foes. In September, NASA resumed space flights with the Discovery. In November, the Soviet Union stunned the world by launching their own Shuttle, Buran. It was its first and only flight.

I was 11 years old at the time, but my former love for spaceships had vanished away. Mom had died and grandma was already too sad to be worried about rockets. The one thing I loved in 1988 was staying alone in my room drawing and painting: I was in a hurry to finish my art school portfolio. In the following year, the Berlin Wall came down. In two more years, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Suddenly, the world of my childhood was no more. I’d said farewell to Baikonur before; and now, on my fourteenth birthday, I shouted a bittersweet Goodbye Lenin. Art became my compass and I didn’t give up on my new dream.

Today, 33 years after the Challenger (and 16 years after Columbia), I’m glad I didn’t become a cosmonaut, for I became an artist and a teacher. As an artist, I can push the boundaries of imagination; as a teacher, I can push the boundaries of hope. Now I understand –as Christa McAuliffe did– that teaching is the best way we have to touch the future.

But back then, the night of my story –while American kids cried themselves to sleep and nobody knew how to comfort them–, that night, I just wanted to write about a high school teacher whose name I couldn’t even spell correctly. I only spoke Spanish and a little Russian; so I did the only naive thing a kid of my age could do and I titled my report “la maestra cosmonauta” (the cosmonaut teacher), just as my grandma used to call her. I cannot remember what I ended up writing, but I’m sure it was a beautifully naive tribute to a life I couldn’t fully understand at the age of eight:

A life whose greatest legacy was not that of touching the stars in outer space, but touching the living stars in the hearts of millions of children all around the world.

Christa McAuliffe Gravestone in Concord NH. By Craig Michaud (flickr user:thebudman623) – https://www.flickr.com/photos/thebudman623/3175854264/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5814937

Post Scriptum

Wednesday, January 29, 1986

Dinner is over at home and grandma is clearing the table.

-What did they say at school, Javier Antonio?
(Silence while I play with the fork on my empty dish.)
-Javier?
-Nothing…
-What do you mean by nothing, boy?
-Nothing, grandma. They talked about the 133rd anniversary of José Martí, the Cuban delegation visiting Czechoslovakia, and the Socialist Emulation between steel factories in Kazakhstan.

Grandma doesn’t say a word, but I know she’s upset. I can hear the rumbling of dishes in the kitchen sink. After a few minutes, she comes to the table and seats by me while sipping her coffee.

-Did you say something?
-No, grandma; they didn’t ask me directly…

She breathes a sigh of relief and takes a large sip from her cup, the last one. Then she holds my chin, looks straight into my eyes, and asks me:

-And what do you think, Javier?

The night is slowly falling; there is silence in our kitchen. I made a tremendous effort because I don’t like to cry in front of anyone, not even her. But I cannot stop the tear from going all the way down to our table:

-Her students, grandma… I think they’re gonna miss her. Forever!

Astronaut Christa McAuliffe. 26 September 1985. NASA Human Space Flight Gallery