In Memory of the Challenger

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.  It was 1986 when the Challenger was launched, carrying the “First Teacher in Space,” Christa McAuliffe.  She never made it.  Seventy-three seconds after launch from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral something went wrong.  While many people remember an explosion, and some news sources even added explosion sounds to the news footage, what actually happened was the solid rocket booster caught fire and detached, leaving the shuttle to crash land in the ocean.  It was this impact that killed the seven crew members although whether or not they were conscious at this time remains unknown.

As a Florida kid, I’d seen a bunch of shuttle launches.  Up close is great, but the 150 mile trip to Cape Canaveral often left us disappointed as launch delays were common.  We could often see shuttle launches from our backyards or school playgrounds. It was something we took for granted like orange trees and alligators.  So I wasn’t watching the shuttle launch on TV or out the window at the time of the disaster. I was sitting in Spanish class trying to grasp the subjunctive tense.

Some kid whose name was Brian, I think, was skipping class and gazing at the sky through a haze of weed when the shuttle broke apart.  He burst into the classroom in a panic.  “It exploded!” he said, excitedly.  “It’s falling in the ocean!” The teacher didn’t believe him at first, but he managed to convince her, and we all went outside.

It was cold out and clear. I strained to see if there were bodies falling from the sky.  There were none, of course. By the time I saw the wreckage in the sky, the astronauts were sinking in the Atlantic Ocean.  It all seemed so macabre, though, as if we witnessed death up close even though we were so far away.  It was messy, gory, graphic if only in our minds.  I have a hard time remembering how I felt past the gut reaction of horror. I still can’t bring myself to post a picture of the debris. Please enjoy this picture of Christa McAuliffe.

Those of my generation are likely to have strong memories of the disaster, especially for those of us who witnessed it in real time in person or on TV.  One study shows that in children, memories of the event were recalled years later in much the same way as personal traumas full of colorful, specific, and mostly accurate details.

Nothing else got done at school that day, or for the rest of the week.  Our teachers turned into counselors.  We were encouraged to share our thoughts, our grief.

The greatest tragedy of the shuttle disaster is of course that it could have been prevented.  It was later discovered that the O-rings that held the rockets together were made brittle by the cold temperatures, and some engineers knew it and even tried to halt the launch. Space travel is of course inherently dangerous, but it appalling to learn that risk factors could have been mitigated and were not.

Since then, there have been changes at NASA.  The shuttle program was grounded for several years while an independent investigation was conducted, and changes were made.  I can only believe that the astronauts who sacrificed their lives contributed to the future safety and prosperity of the Space Program.

Please share with me your memories of that date as I pay tribute to the crew of the Challenger.

Christa McAuliffe

Francis R. “Dick” Scobee

Michal J. Smith

Judith A. Resnik

Ronald E. McNair

Ellison S. Onizuka

Gregory B. Jarvis