Remembering Challenger

January 28, 1986 is a day I’ll never forget. I don’t know that I could if I tried.

I was a junior at Gilford Middle-High School in Gilford, New Hampshire. I had “study hall” during the particular part of the morning and I was in the school’s library to watch the launch of STS-51-L–the Space Shuttle Challenger.

I was one of those kids who was an A.V. nerd. I’m sure you know the kind. If there was a movie or a video that a class had to watch, we were the ones who usually set up the projector or wheeled the cart with the TV into the classroom. On this particular day, I had set up a TV in the Library’s Media Center to watch the launch, and I had the television all to myself.

Truth be told, I’d seen almost all of the Shuttle launches at that point, but this one was special. In fact, practically all of New Hampshire was watching this launch because fellow resident, Christa McAuliffe, was part of Challenger’s crew as America’s first Teacher in Space.

I had set up the the TV and, before I knew it, a teacher had brought his class into the Media Center to watch the launch. So much for having the room.

Everything had seemed pretty normal. The countdown progressed. The engines ignited. Challenger started her climb through the Florida sky.

“Challenger, go at throttle up.”

Those words still linger in my memory.  Moments later, disaster happened.

The other students around me were cheering. They were excited that the Shuttle was on her way to space. None of them realized what I did. Tears began to stream down my face and the teacher with the students noticed and came over to see if I was alright.

I replied very quietly, “That’s not supposed to happen. They’re gone.”

He didn’t understand. I looked at him and choking back tears, I made the situation clearer.

“You don’t understand. They’re gone. I think they’re all dead. The orbiter exploded. The solid rocket boosters aren’t supposed to do that.”

He turned white. Like the students he conducted into the classroom, he hadn’t realized that it didn’t go like it had always done before. He asked the class to quiet down and it was becoming clearer for the attended audience from the commentary on the news that something was very, very wrong.

“This is an ABC News Special Report…”

Coverage went from showing us the launch, to covering the tragedy. The Media Center began to fill up with people wanting to know what happened. I went to my next class–at least, I believe I did, because I don’t really remember anything past that.  I have vague recollections of teachers crying. There had been an announcement over the school’s PA system announcing the disaster, and the rest of the school day really seemed to be sitting around a television trying to find out the latest news.

I’d always heard my Mom tell me that she remembered where she was when JFK was shot, and I felt like this would be the day my generation would remember in that way.

The Space Program at that point effectively came to a halt, along with my optimism and visions of a space faring future. I mourned for these pioneers of space flight—because they were. They may not have been first, but all of these astronauts throughout history were pioneers bringing America and the world into space. I didn’t know any of them, but I felt like part of my extended family had been lost, and that was the first time I’d had that sense of loss in my life.

And then, there was Christa.

I didn’t know Christa McAuliffe. She taught at a high school about half an hour south of where I grew up. However, all of New Hampshire felt like they knew her because we’d followed her progress in her training for STS-51-L on the evening news for some time. It was like seeing a friend you’d never met before living out a dream you’d always had. People here were incredibly proud of her for being named America’s first-ever Teacher in Space, and she was looked at as part “local girl done good” and part hero.

The inscription on her grave stone in Concord, New Hampshire:

“She helped people. She laughed. She loved and is loved. She appreciated the world’s natural beauty. She was curious and sought to learn who we are and what the universe is about. She relied on her own judgment and moral courage to do right. She cared about the suffering of her fellow man. She tried to protect our spaceship Earth. She taught her children to do the same.”

Later that fall when I went to the first showing of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, I cried again. The dedication at the beginning of the film, although brief, brought it all back. It also taught me that people–my people–understood, and they felt the same way I did.

“The cast and crew of Star Trek wish to dedicate this film to the men and women of the spaceship Challenger whose courageous spirit shall live to the 23rd century and beyond . . . .”

January 28, 1986 is a day where I’ll always feel like I lost a part of my innocence, but America lost so much more. May we always recall the courage and bravery demonstrated by the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger: Greg Jarvis, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Ron McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, Dick Scobee, and Mike Smith.