Remembering The Challenger: 25 Years Later
Do you remember where you were the morning of Jan. 28, 1986? That was the day the Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its launch, killing all seven astronauts on board. Maybe you were at work. Maybe you were at home. Maybe you weren’t even born yet. As for me, I was in my 5th grade classroom.
I can still recall some of the details of that day in vivid detail. I remember the name of the boy who sat next to me and told me the space shuttle had blown up. I told him he was mean. I thought he made the story up. Soon thereafter my principal announced over the loudspeaker that there had indeed been an accident involving the space shuttle.
My family visited the Kennedy Space Center in July 1985 and we had the opportunity to see the Challenger launch in person. It was an amazing experience. I had always been interested in the space program thanks to my mother but after seeing the launch I was hooked and at 10 years old wanted nothing more than to be a mission specialist when I grew up. Sally Ride was my idol and I took it as a sign that she became the first American woman in space on my eighth birthday. I even had pictures of McAuliffe and other astronauts on my walls. I was a certifiable NASA nut.
In 1986 shuttle launches were a big deal. It was not uncommon for televisions to be wheeled into classrooms for students to watch a launch and classrooms across the country were tuned in to the coverage. I was disappointed that we weren’t going to get to see it but in hindsight that was a good thing. This launch was extra special because Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher, was on board, billed as the first teacher in space as part of the NASA Teacher in Space Project. I had followed the status of the mission through my Weekly Reader magazine, plus McAuliffe was from a neighboring state and we New Englanders were a proud bunch.
My mother greeted me at the bus stop that afternoon, which was very unusual. I wanted nothing more to watch the news when I got home, but she had rented movies for me to watch instead, knowing I would obsessively watch the coverage if given a choice. You know, I can even name one of the movies we watched that day? It’s funny the things you remember.
I read anything and everything put out about the accident, including parts of the commission report. I may have been the only “tween” who could tell you what an O-ring was and what caused the Challenger to disintegrate.
There was an almost three year period between launches and it was big news yet again when Discovery lifted off in September 1988. This time my class was watching. I remember holding my breath, secretly praying for a successful launch. My 8th grade science class clapped and I think my teacher may have teared up.
On the morning of Feb. 1, 2003, I was brought back to that fateful day in January when I learned the space shuttle Columbia had broken apart over Texas during re-entry into the atmosphere. I felt like that 10-year-old all over again.
In all, 17 astronauts have died during missions or training since NASA was created in 1958; three astronauts died in a flash fire while Apollo 1 sat on the launch pad in January 1967, seven died in the Challenger accident and seven died in the Columbia accident. Any death is a great loss, but each astronaut understands and accepts the risks that come with space travel.
Twenty-five years after the nation mourned the loss of the “Challenger 7” NASA is at a crossroads. The 135th and final space shuttle mission is tentatively scheduled for June of this year. Personally, I am lamenting the end of the space shuttle program - not just because I have yet to attain the goal set by my 10-year-old self of becoming a mission specialist, but because I fear this may be the end of space exploration for NASA. Space exploration is expensive and the country’s financial woes are well documented, but I believe funding NASA is a good use of taxpayer money. There is still so much to learn about this fascinating universe we live in. I think Christa and her fallen colleagues would agree with me.
Reach Christine Detz here.
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