30 years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger fell out of the sky on its way to the stars. Much like the assassination of JFK, if you were alive and remotely aware of current events at the time, you almost certainly recall where you were when it happened. Events like this leave their stamp upon the collective mentality of those bearing witness.
Listening to various retrospectives as I’ve gone about my day, I’ve been reflecting upon my own experience of this significant event. And I’ve been debating sharing that experience for a variety of reasons. The primary reason I’ve hesitated all day is the same reason I finally decided to write about it now.
The Challenger disaster was the first time I dreamed the future involving a significant world event.
You don’t have to believe me. In fact, it would be easier if I didn’t believe it myself. But for me, that day is indelibly fixed in my memory for many more reasons than the simple shock of it, the pathos for the dead, the media-stroked fear of what this could mean for our country’s proud space program.
I was desperate to know if I could have changed it. If there was anything at all I could have done.
I was in seventh grade. And I learned then, as I know now, visions of the future — no matter how accurate — are far more curse than gift. Because the answer to that question, “What could I have done?” was — and remains — nothing.
For those of you who believe in psychic phenomenon, and even for those of you who are open-mindedly on the fence, I’m sure that you have, like myself, been influenced by media portrayals from The Ghost Whisperer to the Dead Zone, where psychic information is presented as a gift, and the receiver operates under a compunction to Do Good with that gift — whether that good is helping a spirit to move on, helping a family find closure, or helping to prevent a disaster foreseen.
But that’s movies, books, TV. It’s not real life. In real life, foreseeing an event doesn’t guarantee that you can change it. I’m not ever sure it means that you should.
In the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger, I wouldn’t have had time to tell anyone even had there been some reasonable way in which a shy and socially awkward seventh grader could have reached out to NASA or any other official agency to tell them of the impending doom. I mean, what the hell do you say anyway? No matter how detailed, no matter how reasonable, I guarantee that you will end up sounding delusional. Even if you can describe a specific event, a specific time, and a specific date the standard response — the logical response — is disbelief. Call it the Cassandra Complex — even when a prophecy is the truth, we don’t want to believe.
I didn’t want to believe. At the time, I figured it was a nightmare. And it wasn’t like the dream put me in Florida looking up at that clear blue sky. The dream put me in class — the same class scheduled for the time of the launch. And in that class, we were told that the Challenger had blown up, and the teacher was giving us an exercise where we had to solve the problem of why.
This was perfectly reasonable for that class because we did a lot of logic problems and off-the-wall thought experiments. And I remember my dream-self sitting at one of the big tables in the school library where class had been moved, and we were looking at boxes of parts and dossiers on people who had worked on different aspects of the shuttle itself – from engineers down to individuals in charge of overseeing physical manufacturing. And we sorted through all of it and debated, and no one agreed.
On Jan. 28th thirty years ago, that particular class was canceled, so I was sitting in study hall when the announcement came over the loudspeakers at school. Everyone was shocked. A few people cried. The whole school had been following the lead-up to this launch, because this flight was the first flight with a school teacher on board. Kids in my class had parents who worked at NASA – the Glenn Research Center is a big deal in Cleveland, and a major employer in the maths & science fields out here.
The news shocked me so utterly, I nearly fell out of my chair. I couldn’t explain that my hands were shaking with guilt more than anything. I didn’t dare admit that I’d dreamed it, that I’d also managed to forget that the launch was that day because the story I was writing instead of doing health homework had totally diverted my attention.
I couldn’t tell anyone at school. But once I got home, I could tell my grandmother. She and I shared gifts, and we often spoke about our experiences. There are many things about my grandmother that I would prefer to forget, but her insight into psychic abilities is not one of those things — that insight helped to shape me into the person I am today.
At dinner, she remarked, as she usually did, about the news of the day. That was a thing with her – she’d keep up on current events, talk to me about them, and encourage me to offer opinions, insight, and commentary.
At first, I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t even meet her eyes. I was still flabbergasted by the experience. It was not the first time I had dreamed something that came true. Not by a longshot. But it was certainly the first time that dream ended up being something so big, so seemingly earth-shattering, and verified in such an immediate, visceral way.
Finally, when I managed to speak up, my voice shaking, I said, “I dreamed it.”
She asked, “Dreamed what? The Space Shuttle blowing up?”
I nodded. “Last night. I dreamed it. The same time it happened, it happened in my dream.”
And here is the lesson — here are the words that I instantly took to heart and have not forgotten since.
She said, without disdain or judgment, just pure and matter-of-fact, “Honey, anyone can be psychic after the fact. You should have told me this morning. Better yet, next time, write it down.”
If anyone ever wonders why I am such a stickler about verification, about objectively approaching these talents, and — above all — keeping a written record of what we foresee, intuit, and perceive, this is why. This indelible moment between grandmother and ward at the kitchen table in our old house.
Anyone can be psychic after the fact.
We all know the type. They want to feel special, or they want a quick buck, or maybe they genuinely believe but interpret their experiences erroneously. Skepticism is a richly deserved reaction. There are too many variables that can skew the results, especially when premonitions are reported only after the supposedly foreseen event.
The rest of our conversation that day revolved around responsibility. I felt responsible for not telling someone sooner — someone in authority who might have been able to change things. My grandmother’s counter-argument was this: my first responsibility was to verify my psychic experiences for myself. How could I ever expect someone in authority to believe me if I didn’t fully understand my own abilities?
That day, she challenged me to approach my experiences as scientifically as possible, given the intensely subjective nature of those experiences. There are three important steps, and I still follow them: experience, record, then analyze. And when you dream something big, understand that there is very little you can realistically do with that foreknowledge except to bear witness.
At least for now.