♦ The Story of the Song
How a 25 year old song
was reborn for a 25th anniversary…
On January 28, 1986, the space-shuttle Challenger lifted off on Mission STS-51L, carrying the first “teacher in space,” and 73 seconds later, a certain age of innocence ended when the shuttle Challenger was destroyed and all seven astronauts lost their lives.
I was devastated by the events of that day - as was nearly everyone who witnessed it and lived through it (and the huge media build-up to the whole mission, including the massive publicity surrounding the “first teacher in space” angle). I was watching the event live on TV when it happened, and they just kept playing the footage of the launch and explosion over and over, until it was seared into your memory - I spent the week in a daze of shock and disbelief.
Nowadays, I'm a music software designer. But 25 years ago, I was a professional musician, performing in NYC night clubs, chasing after “the dream” of writing and recording songs, hoping to record an album and secure a record deal. I was 30 years old, and was in the studio with my friend and partner David Alvey (the guitarist) working on a recording project in the weeks preceding the disaster.
Wanting to somehow give voice to my feelings, that night I began writing this song. It was a heart-felt, emotional response to the incident, sort of a tribute to the brave people who “challenge the gods” in order to find new knowledge, and to the idea that space-exploration must continue, and should not cease because of the incident (which it actually did for about 3 years, if you recall).
The melody, lyrics and structure poured forth, with tears coming out of my eyes at some points - and two days later we were in my partner Dave's home studio working on an 8-track demo of the song. We both had home studios, but Dave's had the better gear (including a Synclavier, which we used for a sound effect), so we ended up doing it there. Barely a day later the song was completed, and I began trying to find a way to “get it out there”.
I took the song to the few record company contacts I had at the time, to the recording studio I was working in at the time, to anyone I could think of, and I could find no one willing to actually do anything with the song. While I got some great comments and reaction, I ultimately struck out, not being a “signed artist with a track record”.
You have to remember that this was 25 years ago; there was no Internet to speak of (not like it is now); no YouTube, personal websites were in their infancy, no FaceBook or MySpace, no blogs etc. - none of those various avenues to release it yourself and promote it yourself.
After a few weeks of trying to get someone/anyone interested in promoting the song - not with the idea of making any money from it, but that any proceeds (whatever they might be) could be donated to a suitable charity related to the Challenger - it became clear that I had no way to do anything with it. And the whole thing drifted into the background as life moved on, as it always does. The project went “on the shelf” and that was pretty much the end of it. But I always felt it was one of the better songs I had ever written.
So, the song just sat “in the can” for the last 25 years, and on our private cassette tape-players, and then CD players, and then iPods... every few years, I'd find it and listen to it, and think “man, that was a good song, too bad nothing ever came of it...” and then back “on the shelf” it would go.
Last year (early 2010), I dug it up to listen to it again, and I found myself thinking “when exactly did that happen? How long ago was it?” So a quick internet search revealed that the 25th anniversary of the “Challenger disaster” was coming up this January 28, 2011.
This seemed somehow significant, and prompted a long daydream about redoing the song with modern technology, creating an inspirational video to accompany it, and releasing it and self-promoting it now that the Internet was so different from 25 years ago. Again, not to make any money from the song, but to memorialize the event in an inspirational and uplifting fashion, bring this piece of music that I thought was amongst the best I ever I did to recognition, and share the feelings and emotion with everyone else who has a memory of that event.
I discussed the idea with Dave and he jumped on board...and that began a long involved process of trying to find the original tracks and transfer them to some more modern format that we could work with to produce a newer version.
The fact was, being 25 years old, the original song was recorded with long-outmoded technologies on various pieces of ancient musical equipment, some of which we no longer even owned.
True, we could have just totally re-recorded the song from scratch, doing the vocals and parts all over again - but a) I was determined to have some tracks from the original, 25 year old song in the new version, to tie the whole thing together and provide continuity, and b) I felt I would never, at age 55 and not having sung actively for many years, be able to duplicate or come close to the original lead vocal of the song, made when I was far younger and my voice was in top shape from performing live on a daily basis. Not to mention the lead vocal was sung a day or two after the event, and I believe the raw emotion in the vocal is apparent and would be hard for me to duplicate now - even if I could still hit the notes.
But first up, we had to locate the master tape....
[view technical description of Recording & Production]
Ultimately, having re-recorded the song, it became time to work on the video.
During the work on the sequencing of the song, I was also spending long hours every evening searching the Internet for images and video related to the Challenger disaster, and other Challenger missions, and the space program, and space images, and starting to formulate ideas for a video screen play.
While researching the event, reading related stories about the shuttle mission and NASA and downloading hundreds of incredible images of the shuttle and space programs, I cannot stress how unbelievably humbled I am by the contributions these astronauts make, the bravery and courage they display - when you look at an image of the space shuttle launching, on top of two Solid Rocket Boosters, and you stop to think for a moment that 5 or 7 or 9 astronauts are strapped into chairs inside the tip of the shuttle, you start to gain some perspective on what they are willing to risk in order to go “where no one's gone before”... they are actually living the science fiction that most of us only can read about...
I have found out so many fascinating things while researching this video - did you know that Ronald McNair, aside from being the first African-American into space, was an accomplished saxophonist? I didn't.... but he was set to record a piece with none other than the very famous Jean Michel Jarre prior to the tragic event... I found out hundreds of interesting things I never knew before, and gained new respect for the seven Challengers as individuals - all of them, the finest of the finest.
And so now, in what has turned into a labor of love after about six months of effort to bring this song and video together (and 25 years of wishing I had originally been able to release it shortly after the actual event), I'm putting it out to the world by uploading to YouTube and other places.
I hope you'll join me in honoring the brave men and women of Challenger Mission STS-51L in your thoughts and memories, and look at the shuttle program with renewed amazement and awe, as I have while producing this song and video.
Finally, if this song, story and remembrance of the event has touched you in any way, please consider a donation to the Challenger Center for Space Science Exploration www.challenger.org - founded by the Challenger astronauts’ families - they carry on the mission of bringing the challenge and rewards of exploring space and science to children everywhere.
- Stephen Kay, January 2011
♦ On the lyrics and “the Challenger”
In the lyrics I wanted to epitomize the spirit of the of the seven astronauts as a sort of noun, in other words, they were not only on the Challenger spacecraft, but they were “challengers”, and a challenger embodies certain specific attributes talked about in the song...such as bravery, courage, the desire to go where no one's gone before, and so on...
Also, part of the feeling behind the song I wanted to communicate was the idea that this could NOT mean the end of space exploration - that this devastating event, as horrible as it was, could not be taken to mean that space exploration was too dangerous to pursue. I was (and still am) a big supporter of space exploration, and feel that we, as a nation (and a world) need to continue to explore...hence the recurring phase at the end of each chorus “The challenge must go on...”
(Shuttle flights were suspended for nearly 3 years, so this seemed a real possibilbity at the time).
I also wanted to memorialize the contribution of the first “teacher in space,” Christa McAullife, hence the lyrics “What drives a woman beyond the wild, to bring that knowledge home and teach it to the child?” There was such a big build-up in the media regarding her participation, that fate seemed particularly cruel and capricious in choosing this particular flight to end in this way.
The answer to these various questions that are posed in the verses of the song? To go where no one's gone before...to find new uncharted discoveries, new knowledge to benefit the human race - “The Challenger knows not the reason why - there's only courage.”
I also wanted to present a vision of the seven Challengers continuing on, in some other dimension, universe or life, with the pursuit of their mission (and their dreams and their lives) as if this event had not happened, hence the lyrics “seven the dreams that will never die; seven the hearts that forever fly - where no one's gone before...” And that resulted in the imagery during the end sequence of the video, as we move out of the solar system and into deep space, with the idea that the Challenger is still moving onward, outwards, and upwards.
The lines “faint-hearted souls quake and compromise; it's with the brave that the future lies” were a deliberate paraphrasing of one of the sentiments from President Ronald Reagan's address to the nation that evening:
“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. ~ Ronald Reagan, January 1986
♦ Should the actual explosion have been shown in the video?
Several people have asked me whether I considered not showing the actual explosion of the Challenger during the video. Interestingly, I did “wrestle” with this. I finally decided that:
- You can search on YouTube for “challenger disaster” and find hundreds of videos showing the actual explosion, so it’s not hidden or difficult to find.
- One of the things the video is doing is telling the story of Mission STS-51L, so why avoid the actual culmination of the tragic tale? As a documentary (as well as a tribute) it seemed to be a necessary piece of the full story...
- I chose to display it during a climactic moment of music, and then fade to black, essentially offering a moment of silence in their memory. I don’t dwell on it, I don't show endless long shots of debris trailing into the ocean. But that “two-headed” cloud with the twin rocket boosters streaming out of it is an iconic image of the 80’s, and not something to be hidden because it’s not a happy image.
- Visually, I think it works well with the music at that point....also leading into the next shot, of the seven hearses, and then into the memorials. This is the real-life reality of the accident, and the sometimes sad consequences of being a pioneer and explorer - and no amount of wishing it didn’t happen will make it go away. However, there are two ways to look at everything - rather than that being an image of seven caskets, I look at it as an image of the respect and admiration of the nation for the brave fallen heroes.
- I ultimately decided that most people, watching the video, would expect at some point to see that event...
- And also, for people who have not even thought about it for 25 years, it would be a jarring and realistic reminder of what it all was truly about: the tragic loss of life, by seven courageous explorers, in a widely telecast event where “no one expected anything to go wrong.” Sadly, it was a “loss of innocence” for the entire nation.
So ultimately, I don’t know if I made the right decision by incorporating footage of the actual explosion into the video, but it seemed right at the time.