The Challenger Crew. From NASA.
Next Thursday we’ll all be asking each other one question: where were you thirty years ago?
On January 28th, 1986, at 8:39 A.M., I was in math class. After some initial commotion, the classroom was quiet as we all diligently scribbled out the task at hand. One of our classmates was in the sitting area adjacent to the northwest corner of the classroom. Besides reading adventure books aloud to us, our teacher also rewarded students with time in that area, which was furnished with a stereo.
In 1986 many of us kids had a strong pride in our country and its technological prowess. This was the year Top Gun would wow us, Reagan would launch air strikes against Libya, and we felt well-defended against the shadowy, mysterious Russians on the other side of the globe. January 28th radiated this patriotic pride as the Challenger space shuttle prepared to launch on a gloriously sunny day.
Suddenly, Scott, who’d been stretching out his legs near the stereo, exclaimed, “the space shuttle just blew up!” A shock wave stunned the classroom as we all gasped and tried to make sense of what he’d just said. Shortly after, our principal came onto the intercom and announced that the Challenger had just exploded. What?!!
Our school had been keeping close tabs on the space program because one of our teachers from a few grades prior had been considered by NASA for this mission. Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from New Hampshire, was the finalist. She and six others were aboard the ill-fated space shuttle that disintegrated off the coast of Florida.
More than fifteen years later, the image of people jumping out of hellish infernos in Manhattan would be forever seared into our minds. But for us Gen Xers in 1986, the image that will never leave us is this:
We tried to make sense of it. While my friends and I were well-versed in the early failures and fatalities in aviation and the space program, this was the ’80s. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We’d advanced. We’d adapted. These problems weren’t possible. That a space vehicle containing such a wonderful diversity of Americans as well as a teacher just blew up– no, no, no. These things didn’t happen in our country.
For years we waited for answers as the Rogers Commission did its thing. Ultimately we all learned about the o-ring. The o-ring did it. With the ice. A minor player killed our heroes. Perhaps the worst part of the truths of this tragedy coming to light was finding out that the cabin containing the crew could be seen flying off to the side. They were very likely alive as they dropped from the sky and then hit the ocean at over 200 miles an hour. Did they even have time to realize what had happened?
On February 1st, 2003, a Saturday, I was sitting in bed with the TV on. In the blink of an eye I found myself back in January 1986. The space shuttle Columbia had broken up as it reentered the atmosphere. The first Israeli astronaut was killed along with another team of heroes. Debris, parts of the spacecraft, parts of people, rained down across the southern U.S. in a wide swath, plummeting from 231,000 feet.
This time there were no math problems. There was no intercom announcement. There was no Scott, no stereo. It wasn’t particularly sunny. But that horrific feeling of, “no, no, this does not happen in America” engulfed me like a tsunami. I put my knees up to my chest and just sobbed. There was a personal connection to this incident that made it particularly biting. Again I wondered how long each astronaut was alive after the explosion and what they would be thinking if they even had time to think.
Where were you January 28th, 1986? Three decades now span the chasm between now and then. Memories sometimes fade from steel bridges to rope walkways to wispy tendrils of smoke as the future consumes us. But not this memory. This one will always be fresh. More so than John Lennon being shot, or Reagan being shot, or the events at the Berlin Wall.
On January 28th, 2016, at 8:39 A.M. Pacific time, I will be sitting at my desk at work. I will be doing math. My radio might be on. In the northwest corner are filing cabinets. There will be an explosion to the southeast. An adolescent voice will announce the unthinkable and twenty-five children will burst into shocked conversation. A voice from the ceiling will confirm the event. A sea of OP t-shirts, Levis, and matching socks will shimmer and shift in my mind as my feet are rooted to the floor in the third desk back.
We will try to make sense of this for years. But here, now, most of my life later, I’m not sure that some of us ever really have.
10,957 days later, it still feels like yesterday.
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