The wind blew cold, and ice coated the cradle that held the space shuttle Challenger. Mission 51-L, the mission whose most famous payload was Concord teacher Christa McAuliffe, had already been delayed several times.
The countdown clock showed 20 minutes to launch when the closeout crew tried to do one of the last and seemingly simplest of the thousands of tasks that had to be performed before the ship left for space. They had to close and lock the door.
The task took more than two hours. The crowd of Christa's friends and well-wishers in the stands at the three-mile line shivered, muttered and grew nervous.
First a sensor designed to confirm that the latch pins were in place failed. That problem was solved, but then the external door handle wouldn't come off. The threads on a bolt were stripped.
To minimize the chance of an explosion, the workers sent for a cordless drill. An ordinary Black & Decker arrived 15 minutes later. The drill bit spun ineffectually for a few moments, then stopped. The battery was dead.
We were at the Cape for the launch, and that was the moment nervousness turned to anxiety. The next nine batteries the vast NASA machine tried in the drill were all dead or nearly so. The door handle had to be cut off with a hacksaw.
This memory returned as tomorrow's 20th anniversary of the Challenger disaster approached. Since then the crew of the space shuttle Columbia has also died in an accident. The shuttle program itself is scheduled for termination in 2010.
In Concord, Christa's death remains just beneath the surface. A mention of her name can bring tears. People still leave tokens of remembrance, flowers, apples, notes, polished stones and silver charms at her grave. Her death, which occurred in public, like that of President John Kennedy, brought with it a similar end to innocence.
Beyond the personal pain that our community feels, it is worth asking 20 years later why humans should explore space.
The reasons range from the mundane - products developed for the space program have proved to be valuable on Earth - to life's cosmic questions: How did we get here? Are we alone?
The first reason to explore space is the one mountaineer George Mallory gave when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there." It is human nature to explore and to seek answers for the largest of questions.
Mankind reaches for space because it needs an escape hatch for its curiosity, spirit and, perhaps, survival. It has become important to learn whether the sun's energy, or some other form of power, can be harnessed from space in a way that reduces Earth's reliance on the fossil fuels whose combustion causes global warming.
There is a need to discover whether it truly is possible to colonize another planet, an asteroid or a moon. Resources found there could someday replace their counterparts on Earth or provide the fuel and materials for flights deeper into space.
Finally, Americans need to explore space because if we don't, someone else will.
For centuries, the Chinese were the most technically advanced civilization on Earth. Their enormous armada sailed the Orient and Africa. But in the 15th century, when Britain, Holland, France, Spain and Portugal sent fleets across uncharted seas to conquer, capture and trade, China turned inward and beached its ships. Chinese civilization fossilized. Five centuries later, the nation is still struggling to catch up.
The same thing could and probably will happen in space, the next frontier. Those who don't go will be left behind.
The Challenger, with Christa McAuliffe aboard, shook Earth goodbye 20 years ago tomorrow. Christa died that day, but her dream of reaching for the stars lives on, as it must.