I was only eight when the Challenger disaster occurred on that icy January morning in 1986. I distinctly remember perching on my chair in Mrs. M's third grade class, eager to watch the launch on the bulky brown television that had been wheeled in so that my fellow classmates and I could feel like we were a part of the action. At the time, it seemed a matter of course—at least to us kids—that people could routinely travel to space and to the moon. Even girls could be shuttle explorers after Sally Ride had flown on the Challenger three years earlier! We were encouraged to include 'astronaut' among our future career choices anytime a grown-up asked. And we did.
Third grade happened to coincide with my first real exposure to astronomy, too. It was the first time, for instance, that I learned about my very eager mother . . . not to mention the pizzas she'd just served us—though there are plenty of folks today who'd urge us to skip the pizza. As a child of the 80s, imagining that someday I, too, might fly through the asteroid belt or make a quick trip to the canyons of Mars seemed a perfectly reasonable ambition. I was ready to sign up.
To add to the excitement of the day, we'd been told that Christa McAuliffe was going to become the first schoolteacher ever, in the history of the world, to travel into space. We knew about this not just because it was all over the news, but because our school's phys ed teacher had also applied for the Teacher in Space program. And boy, did he get us excited about it! I don't recall whether Mr. W ever disclosed how far along in the process he'd reached before being cut, but he'd clearly felt that doing experiments to gauge how microgravity affected physical fitness would have been one of the greatest gifts he could give to students at our elementary school and around the country.
And then . . . the forked puffy cloud. The confusion. The silence.
It's clear to me now that I was too young to truly understand death. I had actually lost a grandmother just a month before, but my still-developing brain prevented me from grasping the enormity of her passing until much later. Obviously it was the same for these seven people I'd never even met. Yet my classmates and I knew right away that something terrible had just happened. And we were all a little scared.
The Challenger incident has stayed with me over the past quarter-century, well into my adult life. My love of all things space grew as time marched on, and when the shuttle program resumed, I once again looked forward to watching launches on the news, and later, on NASA TV. But to this day, there's a palpable anxiousness in the last hour or so before liftoff. And until I hear the "main engine cutoff" call from mission control, my heart remains firmly embedded in my throat. Sadly, ever since the Columbia breakup in 2003, shuttle landings have become equally nerve-wracking for the same grim reasons.
To be sure, I recognize that many of us put our lives on the line every single day. I think of miners and factory workers who endure precarious and downright dangerous conditions on a daily basis. And there are the firefighters, police officers, and other civil servants who purposely risk bodily harm for the sake of the common good. Heck, every time we get behind the wheel we put ourselves at the mercy of road conditions and other drivers. And yet I can't help but get verklempt when I think of the men and women who voluntarily strap themselves to the back of a rocket and hope that a million things go right on their way out to the stars and back. One of my longtime dreams of attending a shuttle launch finally came true last May, and I can assure you that there were tears streaming down my cheeks as I watched that plume reach deep into the brilliant Florida sky. As with every mission since STS-51-L, I was thinking of Challenger that afternoon—and yes, Columbia, too.
So today marks 25 years since that fateful morning back in 1986. I'm now 33, and sad to say I haven't yet booked my flight to the asteroid belt. In 2007, though, Christa McAuliffe's alternate, fellow teacher-astronaut Barbara Morgan, did eventually carry the torch for educators when she flew aboard the shuttle Endeavor and visited the International Space Station.
The legacies of those lost with the Challenger—Jarvis, McAuliffe, McNair, Onizuka, Resnik, Smith, and Scobee—live on in all of us who were watching that day. I, for one, will never forget. ∞
Lego photo courtesy of BriXwerX on Flickr