For a long time, I have wanted to place a tribute to the seven men and women of the crew of STS-51L on this website. I have finally found a fitting memorial to them.
A friend forwarded me a copy of the poem on this page, inspired by the Kansas tune “Icarus – Borne on Wings of Steel”. It touched me in a way that no other tribute had.
The very lucid prose captured the moment… and the feeling… of that cold January morning those many years ago.
Michael Brooks is the author of this tribute. He has graciously allowed me to repost it here. While the formatting is mine, the wonderful words are all his.
Thank you, Michael… the Challenger Crew would be honored.
“The Flight of Icarus”
by Sally Benson
(CHILDCRAFT, 1968 EDITION, VOL.2, PP. 276-279)
Once long ago in Greece there lived a famous mechanic named Daedalus. While visiting Crete, King Minos, the ruler of the island, became angry with him, and ordered him shut up in a high tower that faced the lonely sea. In time, with the help of his young son, Icarus, Daedalus managed to escape from the tower, only to find himself a prisoner on the island. Several times he tried by bribery to stow away on one of the vessels sailing from Crete, but King Minos kept strict watch over them, and no ships were allowed to sail without being carefully searched.
Daedalus was an ingenious artist and was not discouraged by his failures. “Minos may control the land and sea,” he said, “but he does not control the air. I will try that way.”
He called his son Icarus to him and told the boy to gather up all the feathers he could find on the rocky shore. As thousands of gulls soared over the island, Icarus soon collected a huge pile of feathers. Daedalus then melted some wax and made a skeleton in the shape of a bird’s wing. The smallest feathers he pressed into the soft wax, and the large ones he tied on with thread. Icarus played about on the beach happily while his father worked, chasing the feathers that blew away in the strong wind that swept the island. And sometimes he took bits of wax and worked it into strange shapes with his fingers.
It was fun making the wings. The sun shone on the bright feathers; the breezes ruffled them. When they were finished, Daedalus fastened them to his shoulders and found himself lifted upwards, where he hung poised in the air. Filled with excitement, he made another pair for his son. They were smaller than his own, but strong and beautiful.
Finally, one clear, wind-swept morning, the wings were finished, and Daedalus fastened them to Icarus’s shoulders and taught him how to fly. He bade him watch the movements of the birds, how they soared and glided overhead. He pointed out the slow, graceful sweep of their wings as they beat the air steadily, without fluttering. Soon Icarus was sure that he, too, could fly, and, raising his arms up and down, skirted over the white sand and even out over the waves, letting his feet touch the snowy foam as the water thundered and broke over the sharp rocks.
Daedalus watched him proudly but with misgivings. He called Icarus to his side, and putting his arm around the boy’s shoulders, said, “Icarus, my son, we are about to make our flight. No human being has ever traveled through the air before, and I want you to listen carefully to my instructions. Keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the fog and spray will clog your wings, and if you fly too high the heat will melt the wax that holds them together. Keep near me and you will be safe.”
He kissed Icarus and fastened the wings more securely to his son’s shoulders. Icarus, standing in the bright sun, the shining wings drooping gracefully from his shoulders, his golden hair wet with spray and his eyes bright and dark with excitement, looked like a lovely bird. Daedalus’s eyes filled with tears and, turning away, he soared into the sky and called to Icarus to follow. From time to time, he looked back to see that the boy was safe and to note how he managed his wings in flight. As they flew across the land to test their prowess before setting out across the dark wild sea, ploughmen below stopped their work and shepherds gazed in wonder, thinking Daedalus and Icarus were gods.
Father and son flew over Samos and Delos which lay to their left, and Lebinthus, which lay on their right. Icarus, beating his wings in joy, felt the thrill of the cool wind on his face and the clear air above and below him. He flew higher and higher up into the blue sky until he reached the clouds. His father saw him and called out in alarm. He tried to follow him, but he was heavier and his wings would not carry him.
Up and up Icarus soared, through the soft, moist clouds and out again toward the glorious sun. He was bewitched by a sense of freedom and beat his wings frantically, so that they would carry him higher and higher to heaven itself. The blazing sun beat down on the wings and softened the wax. Small feathers fell from the wings and floated softly down, warning Icarus to stay his flight and glide to earth.
But the enchanted boy did not notice them until the sun became so hot that the largest feathers dropped off and he began to sink. Frantically he fluttered his arms, but no feathers remained to hold the air. He cried out to his father, but his voice was submerged in the blue waters of the sea, which has forever after been called by his name.
Daedalus, crazed by anxiety, called back to him, “Icarus! Icarus, my son, where are you?” At last he saw the feathers floating from the sky and soon his son plunged through the clouds into the sea. Daedalus hurried to save him, but it was too late. He gathered the boy in his arms and flew to land, the tips of his wings dragging in the water from the double burden they bore. Weeping bitterly, be buried his small son and called the land Icaria in his memory.
Then, with a flutter of wings, he once more took to the air, but the joy of his flight was gone and his victory over the air was bitter to him. He arrived safely in Sicily, where he built a temple to Apollo and hung up his wings as an offering to the god.
A Personal Epilogue
It’s only a myth… yet who among us hasn’t dreamed of soaring free like a bird through the sky? Who hasn’t wished, if only for a moment, to shatter the very shackles of gravity itself? In a flight of fancy we strap on our own wings and join Icarus on his virgin flight as we imagine what must have raced through his mind… what sights and sounds must have greeted his eyes and ears… what feelings must have washed over him in his ecstasy….
The exhilaration of soaring through the clouds… the interplay of light and shadow on the land and sea below… the rush of the wind in his ears… the satisfying beat of his wings upon the air… the cool mist of the clouds in his hair and on his skin… the heat of the sun upon his back as he rose higher, ever higher….
The heat of the sun upon his back…
…the heat of the sun…
…the curious sight of feathers drifting free beneath him… the odd sensation of falling… the bewildered beating of wings that no longer held him aloft… the uncontrollable tumbling… the shock of realization that something had gone horribly wrong… the desperate cries for help to his father… the terrifying plunge into the unforgiving depths of the ocean below….
…It’s only a myth….
…yet we imagine what must have raced through his mind… what anguished prayers must have escaped his lips before everything went black… and then….
…unfolding relentlessly before our confused, blinking eyes… exploding into our consciousness from out of the clear blue sky… searing itself into our stunned, unbelieving minds even as we desperately try to wish it away… to turn back the clock… to undo what cannot be undone.
The best and brightest of who we are, embracing and transcending race, creed, nationality, and gender… the embodiment of all that we would hope to offer of ourselves to our world, to our children, to our posterity… all our hopes, our dreams, our aspirations… our illusions… crumble to ruin and wreckage before us, and the fall of Icarus is transformed from a nearly-forgotten relic of Western civilization’s antiquity into the icon of the defining event of our generation’s cultural memory; for Icarus–young, daring, joyful Icarus–was merely the first … challenger … of the heavens.
January 28th, 1986 — 11:39am EST
|“Challenger, go at throttle up…”||
Early in the morning sunlight
Soaring on the wings of dawn
Here I’ll live and die with my wings in the sky
And I won’t come down no more
|“Roger, go at throttle up…”||
Higher than the birds I’m flying
Crimson skies of ice and fire
Borne on Wings of Steel, I have so much to feel
And I won’t come down no more
Sail on, sail on
“One minute fifteen seconds…
velocity 2900 feet per second…
altitude nine nautical miles…
downrange distance seven nautical …
I will rise each day to meet the dawn
So high, so high
I’ve climbed the mountains of the sky
Without my wings, you know I’d surely die
I found my freedom flying high
I’ve climbed the mountains of the sky
” …Flight controllers are looking
very carefully at the situation…
obviously a major malfunction…
we have no downlink…. ”
Floating on a cloud of amber
Searching for the rainbow’s end
Earth so far below me; I’m here alone
And I won’t come down no more
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Judith A. Resnick, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Ronald E. McNair, Mission Specialist
Gregory A. Jarvis, Payload Specialist
S. Christa McAuliffe, Teacher in Space
Seven ordinary people, possessed of extraordinary skill, determination and courage, striving together to forge another link to humanity’s future… and paying the ultimate price to attain a goal larger than themselves.
As long as we hold forth these seven as examples to be emulated, then our children will learn that heroes are born within each of us.
As long as we strive to the same ideals that they exemplified, then these honored dead will live on in our hearts and minds.