A tragedy remembered by children

It was the day that marked the 30th anniversary of the tragedy known as the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster and it had me reflective.

On Jan. 28, 1986, the Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., at 10:38 a.m. (our time) and 73 seconds later, exploded nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean.

I remember watching the scene play out before us, on television. I was a senior at Elgin High School and the study hall was full of my peers as the televised launch had become part of our day’s assignments.

The space shuttle program was not necessarily new at that point – there had already been 24 successful missions. But this launch was particularly special. This was the first time a civilian was a member of the crew.

And that civilian was a school teacher – Mrs. Christa McAuliffe.

Her presence, alone, made this specific mission unique because it became more personal with the nation’s children and educators.

As the countdown started, our teachers watched with awe – probably picturing themselves in that space-traveling vehicle.

I remember just being very interested because every space shuttle launch, to me, was fascinating. The idea of mere mortals thrusting an airplane-like piece of metal into outer space which would then be navigated back to the earth with a picture perfect landing . . . it was incredible.

Mrs. McAuliffe had been chosen from among more than 11,000 applicants to become the first teacher in space. She was planning to conduct experiments and teach two lessons from the Challenger – so it only made sense for our teachers to start this science program with the momentous launch.

What no one could predict, however, ensued . . . . confusion followed by horror was experienced in schools all across the United States.

I remember seeing the explosion and then the contrails of smoke and debris in the blue sky.

I remember asking the kid next to me if he knew what was going on.

I had watched previous televised launches and I couldn’t remember that ever happening before.

It was clear something was wrong. Either no one understood what they were seeing or it was just too hard to believe. It was just with silence that we sat there and stared at the TV in the front of the room.

Then, there was an oddly calm statement coming from mission control. I remember wondering if it was accidentally linked to the television feed . . . and I wondered what it actually meant.

While I remember hearing the words, I couldn’t remember exactly what he said. I had to go online to find that out.

The man sitting at mission control uttered the first words heard by the public: “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Then the journalists broke in, trying to make sense of what had just happened. They said they’d seen numerous launches and this was something horrifying.

I remember hearing the themes of “explosion” and “all have likely expired.”

I also remember seeing one of our teachers wipe tears from her eyes and escape to the nearby library for privacy.

No one spoke, no one moved.

It was weird.

It was like everyone was holding their breath.

Isn’t it amazing how when these types of monumental tragedies happen, we tend to remember exactly where we were and how we felt? It doesn’t matter how much time has passed.

What is particularly fascinating about that moment is the majority of people who watched the disaster unfold . . . . well, they were children.

I have read articles in the last few days in which it is estimated that a great percentage of the people watching at that moment were kids between the ages of eight and 18.

Many adults were not watching the live coverage because they were at work . . . and space shuttle launches had become sort of mundane due to past success.

Because of Mrs. McAuliffe’s presence, most schools in the nation had at least several television sets wheeled into classrooms.

No one could have imagined what was going to be witnessed.

There was true mourning that day and the days that followed as wreckage and bodies were pulled from the ocean.

I remember wondering how the astronauts’ children felt.

I remember wondering if those seven brave people felt any pain . . . or if they had been scared.

I remember wondering how Mrs. McAuliffe’s students felt, knowing their amazing teacher was never coming back.

As time went on, the words “O-Rings,” and “booster joints,” and “SRBs” were used on a regular basis during the nightly news and in our weekly publication of Time Magazine. Scientifically, the cause of the tragedy was unraveled . . . shuttle flights stopped for two years.

But by the time the fleet was retired in 2011, there were 110 successful shuttle missions, according to the CBS network.

The seven families moved on with their lives.

And all of us school kids grew up.

Many years have passed.

Yet I still remember that moment when the nation’s kids held their breath and the dream of Challenger with its outer space classroom ended before our eyes.

Do you?






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