Every year, on the day before my birthday, my mother inevitably calls me and tells: “You know, such-and-such years ago, I was going into labor—and twelve hours later, I gave birth to a baby boy with a really big head!” (It’s true. I’m told that the size of my head was record-breaking in Anchorage.)
During our conversation, my mom will invariably remind me about the spaceship Challenger. “I had just learned about it before I went into labor.”
Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the Challenger disaster—when the NASA orbiter Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven of its crew members. Naturally, an event like this is a national tragedy all on its own, but the destruction of the Challenger was particularly poignant because one its crew members was Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher selected from more than 11,000 applicants to take part in the mission. At the time of the launch, thousands of teachers and students were watching the event—excitedly cheering for one of their own… until disaster struck.
Following the accident, President Reagan delivered a speech from the Oval Office of the White House. In his address, he said this:
I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.
He concluded his remarks with a quote by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., saying they “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”
I remember seeing pictures of the explosion—plumes of white smoke falling down the sky—and I’ve never forgotten it.
…but I’ve also never forgotten something my mother said to me when I was a child. She pointed to a picture of the smoke falling down and said that it was “star smoke,” and that people “came from the stars”—and that I “came from the stars the very next day.”
Today, while reading articles and watching videos that honor the crew of the Challenger, I was once again reminded of what my mother had said and I made a connection that I hadn’t ever considered.
In my novel, I wrote about Feathertop, a being of incredible light and magic. At a later point in the book, Feathertop takes a large ladle and sweeps it across the starry night sky, “as if scooping something into it.” He steps toward a husband and wife who are cradling the still body of a baby boy then “slowly poured the contents of the ladle over the baby. A sparkling, white light—as bright as starlight—flowed from the [ladle], settling on the baby’s chest.”
Soon after, the boy comes back to life—revived by “star smoke.”
I never fully understood why I wrote that scene—but I felt compelled to write it. I kept seeing the image of Feathertop scooping the sky, filling his ladle with starlight to pour over a child.
Today, while living in Florida, not far from where the Challenger disaster took place (Cape Canaveral), I got the annual phone call from my mother and I think I finally understood why I felt compelled to write that scene. I wanted to illustrate a complex, but divine truth: you and I come from the stars.
In reference to our bodies, Carl Sagan wrote that: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
But I believe there’s more to it than that. There is something eternal about our nature—about our spirits. Each of us is a divine, immortal child of God. That truth, though at times spoken so casually, is deeply profound. The light, the potential, and immortality within us is far brighter than the moon or even the stars. As author Neal A. Maxwell once said: “You have never seen an immortal star; they finally expire. But seated by you tonight are immortal individuals…”
And that thought—the thought that we are star stuff—gives me hope. So much hope, that even in the midst of terrible disasters, we can point to the smoke and wreckage and see hope—and in so doing “touch the face of God.”
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