It’s surreal that it’s been thirty years since the Challenger disaster.
There are a few moments in history that seal themselves into your memory. Moments that you can look back on years later and remember exactly where you were and how you felt.
Obviously, 9/11. That sting is never going away.
For me, there are also the OJ Simpson verdict. The 1994 Northridge Earthquake. Even the 2011 tsunami in Japan and watching Hurricane Katrina make landfall.
But the first time I ever really understood that terrible, terrible things could happen in the world was on January 28, 1986.
I was in the 4th grade. For months, our class had been following the stories about the new Teacher in Space Program and reading all about Christa McAuliffe and all of the amazing things she was going to do.
I have no idea how it worked out that our class got to watch the launch. I don’t know if it was just always planned that way or if our teacher made some deal with the principal or what. All I know is that when I went to school that day, I was so excited that we were going to get to watch it live.
I loved watching shuttle launches. My dad woke me up on more than one occasion to watch early morning launches. So the fact that I got to see one at school was really cool. And that we had been anticipating it for months just made it that much more awesome.
My memory is that the launch was scheduled for very early in the school day, and when I just looked it up, sure enough, lift off happened at 11:38am EST. So that would have been just after 8:30 for us in California. It was the first thing that morning.
As soon as things went wrong, our teacher turned off the TV and tried to keep us distracted, but of course, we all had a lot of questions.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like for her that day. I have no love for that fourth grade teacher, but I can’t imagine how she got through the feelings and the questions and everything. I don’t have many good things to say about her, but I will give her major props for keeping it together.
And now it’s been thirty years and I just can’t believe it.
I was reading this article about how many of Christa McAuliffe’s former students went on to become teachers themselves. That’s so amazing.
And then I started thinking about how the only crew member I could name from the Challenger crew was Christa McAuliffe.
What about the other six?
So I looked them up. And wow. They were some amazing people. Obviously. I mean, there is just something extra special about an astronaut, isn’t there? But these people were just…wow.
Dick Scobee was the Commander of the Challenger mission. He was an Air Force combat pilot during Vietnam and was a test pilot for several different jets and planes. His son went on to become an Air Force pilot too.
Michael J. Smith was the pilot for the mission. When examining the wreckage, investigators discovered that several switches were moved from their positions and the conclusion is that he survived the break up of the shuttle and kept trying to save the crew, right up until the end.
Ronald McNair was a mission specialist and had a PhD in Physics from MIT. When he was 9 years old, he once refused to leave the segregated Lake City Public Library in Lake City, South Carolina, until they allowed him to check out books. That library is now named after him.
Ellison Onizuka was a mission specialist and the first Asian American in space. If you have a newer US passport, look closely and you just might find this quote: “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds… to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”
Judith Resnik was another mission specialist, the second American woman in space, and the first American Jewish astronaut in space. She was recruited into the astronaut program by Nichelle Nichols, who played Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek and worked as a recruiter for NASA in the 70s.
Gregory Jarvis was a payload specialist who had spent most of his career working on the development of satellites. In addition to the Teacher in Space Program, the main mission of the Challenger was to deploy a satellite to study Halley’s Comet and Jarvis was responsible for that satellite.
So…those are just a couple of the tiny details about the crew that I found interesting. I’m sure there are books about each of them, because they were all amazing.
Do you remember that day? If so, what do you remember?