Friday, January 28, 2011


Twenty-five years ago today, I was in the 8th grade and standing in a computer room waiting for the class that I assisted to come in when the librarian came in and told us that the Challenger had just exploded. I, and the other student in the room with me, rushed to the next room where she had a TV going to watch the coverage. We were the first students in our class to know about the tragedy, and when we got back to class we proceeded to tell everyone what we had just seen.

In my memory we spent the rest of that school day doing nothing but watching the coverage of the event. I don't know if that's actually what happened, but that's what I remember. It is one of those events where most people can answer the question "where were you when you first heard the news?"

My brother and I loved the whole idea of space and space travel. Our mom would even allow us to stay home from school in order to watch the shuttle launches. We would always go later in the day, but there was something special about those events for us. But like the rest of America, shuttle launches had become routine. There was nothing special about them anymore, and so we were not at home watching that morning, we were in class with everyone else.

For some reason this event was seared into my mind, and the fact that Christa McAullife was there was not terribly important to me. I actually think that I was more struck by the fact that there were multiple races and both men and women that made it important. I created a little shrine of sorts to the astronauts in my room featuring newspaper articles, a patch for that mission and a cartoon by Benson, the political cartoonist of the Arizona Republic. It featured a drawing of that iconic image of the explosion and the two plumes of smoke from the rockets continuing into the air, and the caption read "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for." Even thinking of it now it brings tears to my eyes.

When I was doing public relations work I met a photographer who was there that day covering the launch because one of the astronauts was an alum of the college he worked for. He was the one who took the picture of McAullife's mother with the sort of stunned, bewildered look on her face, knowing what she had just witnessed and praying that she hadn't just witnessed it all at the same time. I also dated someone who's father, who was a rocket scientist, was fired because before the O rings were found to have been the cause, it was believed that he and his team were responsible. He could not get a job in the aerospace industry for more than a year, and ended up driving a garbage truck.

Twenty-five years later, it is still one of the touch points of my life. It is an image and a time that is seared into my mind, and my thoughts and prayers go out to the friends and families of those astronauts today. For a good book on NASA at the time from an astronaut who was there I recommend Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane.

Where were you 25 years ago today?

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