SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — Sitting on the carpet with my sixth-grade classmates a teacher wheels in a television. We’re in a side room, close together and bubbling over with anticipation. I was a fan of space travel, never considered myself a likely candidate for an astronaut. That changed with NASA’s The Teacher in Space Project.
The program was announced by President Ronald Reagan on August 27, 1984. More than ten thousand teachers applied to be considered for the program. On May 3, 1985, NASA released a list of one hundred, two from each state, names who had made the initial cut. John W. Barainca was on the list. Barainca lived a block or two away from me, taught at the high school I would later attend. I ‘d seen “The Last Starfighter,” worshiped at the shrine of Han Solo and embarked on my share of intergalactic daydreams. Barainca didn’t strike me as a man bound for galactic travels.
There was something very exciting about that. Some on in my neighborhood might be going into space.
On July 1, 1985, the list was reduced to ten finalists. Barainca hadn’t made the cut. I don’t know if official reasons were given. It was either said or assumed that his age or health was a major factor. His exclusion didn’t diminish my excitement. I had jumped on the bandwagon and I wasn’t about to surrender my seat.
Another wrinkle in the story was that Morton-Thiokol, the corporation who built the solid rocket boosters, was located only an hour or so away. It felt like I was sending a piece of myself into space.
We never got there.
I remember the industrial carpet. The silence. The television being turned off and the stunned, worried faces of our teachers.
It could have been Mr. Barainca. It nearly was Mr. Barainca.
Watching Netflix’s “Challenger: The Final Flight” wasn’t easy. It opens with a scene in a classroom that is very reminiscent of my own experiences. Barainca is never mentioned but knowing his story and how it fit into the narrative pulled me deeper into the narrative than I expected. As a child I watched a lot of news programs. I was inquisitive, constantly searching for answers. I followed the developments, gathered the updates as they were released. I knew the Challenger story, the aftermath and lost innocence.
It was like stepping into my childhood bedroom and finding everything exactly where I had left it.
I’ve watched the four-part series twice. It’s well-directed, informative and feels almost, but not quite, definitive as it glosses over the implications that arose when the crew cabin was recovered.
The hardest lesson is taught by the Challenger disaster is that it could have easily been avoided. And yet, we’re still in a rush to get to whatever comes next.