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Challenger Twentieth Anniversary Approaches (January 28, 2006)

This Saturday will be the 20th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the day when the space shuttle exploded and NASA lost seven astronauts: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetary.

For the people of my generation, the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination. Because a schoolteacher, McAuliffe, was on board, many schools had chosen to show the launch live to their students over television. The launch took place around 11:30 AM EST, and seventy-three seconds into the flight, the shuttle exploded. People were confused at first, but it soon became clear that NASA was experiencing what they euphemistically refer to as an LOCV: loss of crew and vehicle.

I didn't see the explosion live, but I still remember that day vividly. My own story is as follows. I was in 11th grade at the time at Hunter College High School. One of our school's Chemistry teachers, Francine Salzman, had applied for the Teacher-in-Space program but not been accepted. So we were all keenly aware of the meaning of the launch.

The school's lunch period took place from 11:10 AM to 12noon, if I remember correctly, and after eating lunch I went to hang out in the school library with friends. I was sitting in the front area of the library when my friend Christina Sormani walked in and asked if I had heard the news about the shuttle. I said no, and she told me that it had blown up during the launch. I protested that she was kidding, and she assured me that she wasn't.

I realized she was serious and I started to cry. I cried so much that Tina thought I personally knew one of the astronauts. I didn't, of course; at the time, like all of us, the only one I could actually name was McAuliffe. But I was crying for them nevertheless, and for the dashed hopes and dreams of an entire human race that yearns to go to the stars. I knew that this would cause a major setback in our space program; and I could only hope that it wouldn't crush it entirely.

That afternoon, when we got home, there was an ironic coda. My father had been applying to the Journalist-in-Space program, and on that very day we received the postcard from NASA indicating that all his applications materials were in. And years later, in 2003, McAuliffe and my father were my own inspirations as I applied unsuccessfully to be an Educator Astronaut.

This weekend, I see from searching the web that people have not forgotten. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education has spent years educating children about space; I myself once took a class to the McAuliffe Challenger Center in Framingham. Astronaut Mike Mullane shares his story in USA Today. Filmmakers Renee Sotile and Mary Jo Godges have made the film Christa McAuliffe: Reach for the Stars. The Washington Post has apparently reprinted an article on the final report of the commission that investigated the tragedy.

I know it's two days early, but anniversaries pass so quickly -- the day comes, and then it's gone. So if people would like to share their own personal remembrances of the tragedy, it would serve as a fitting early memorial.


I was in the McNair Scholars Program at the U of MN. McNair was the one African American astronaut on that one.

I remember it was in 8th grade. I was waiting in line. Heard it. It was confirmed at lunch. Larry Chapin did a bad imitation of Christ McAulaffe in death agonies that I knew to be inaccurate. I remember wishing that my 7th grade science teacher who applied for the position had been on the thing (I hated that guy) and the bad jokes didn't begin for at least another month.
I was in elementary school, and up to then, I'd wanted to be an astronaut more than anything. I remember my dad explaining what had happened, and not really getting half of what he was saying, just the slap of understanding that this part of my childhood was over.
I was in college (I feel so old...), and I remember sitting with other stunned people in Castle Commons, trying to will the footage to be false...
I was in college as well and I walked into the computer lab and a friend of mine told me about it. When I got home later that day and saw the visual, I was just stunned.
Another college person here. I was leaving the dorm to go to fencing and some guys were watching the launch live. I stopped into their room to watch. Never made it to class. It was surreal hearing NASA reporting telemetry after seeing the bull horns.
I still can't watch it. Every time I have any inkling it's going to be shown, I cover my eyes (most recently when mabfan and I saw "No Ordinary Genius," a BBC-made documentary on Richard Feynman.

Challenger remains in my mind during every shuttle launch.
I can't watch the Challenger final launch either. I flinch at the thought. The newspaper headlines the next day are still seared in my mind.

As for where I was, it was Biology class, tenth grade. Usually a fun class, but that day, not so much.
I almost think this is an exercise in making us reveal our ages.
The Challenger launch is actually one of my earliest memories. I was 5, closing fast on 6, and I was with my father in the living room. My dad was on the couch, and I was on the floor by his feet. When the explosion happened, I didn't understand why my dad was so upset. He explained to me, and for years afterward, until I was close to 10, I had recurring nightmares about explosions.
I was in 9th grade. One of my classmates had been tossed out of class (Social Studies) for being disruptive, and when he was let back in, he reported the news. None of us believed him, because he had a reputation for being a sometimes-in-bad-taste joker.

And then we heard the official news reports.

A couple of days later, someone said that the names of the astronauts could be remembered by their initials: SSMMJOR. To this day, that's the way I remember them, expanding the initals out only on second thought.
I was in AP English when the announcement came over the school loudspeakers. I never forgave the teacher for telling us to "just continue reading".

Less than two months later, I was at a student group conference at Auburn HS, Dick Scobee's alma mater. There was a display case in the lobby with mementos, including an Auburn HS sticker that had flown with him on an earlier mission. I nearly lost it.

That summer, the national conference for that group was in Washington, DC. My chapter advisor and I made a trip out to Arlington to visit the Scobee gravesite; the (nearby) Challenger memorial hadn't been put in place at the time, despite what the Arlington link you gave implies; I believe that the common remains had been interred, but the visible memorial wasn't there.
You might be interested in this look at 7 myths about Challenger over on MSNBC.com
Maybe it's because I'm a little older, but I know those are all myths...

I was driving back from the post office, having just mailed off APA:NESFAs. There was an announcement on the radio. When I got back work, someone had already pulled out a little TV set, where a feed from the Cape was constantly being rerun. We stood and watched it for about a half hour.

We did have a small connection to this tragedy - Christa McAuliffe's younger sister worked for our company. So it was a double hit for most of us.
I was home sick from school that day, watching the launch live on TV, and I remember screaming at the newscasters because the channel I was watching took something like five minutes to mention McAuliffe. "You blew up a *&^%ing teacher!" I kept yelling. I can't even figure out why that's what I fixated on.
cheshyre was living in Florida at the time, and, if weather conditions and flight patterns were right, you could see the Space Shuttle fly over from her schoolyard. I don't remember whether they actually saw Challenger naked-eye.

Cherie Koller-Fox, who is my rabbi, went to high school with Judith Resnik. They weren't close, really, but there were only so many Jews in Akron, Ohio, so they knew each other somewhat. Like, Cherie went on one date with Judith's brother or something like that. So it really hit Cherie hard.
I was a senior in high school. Seniors were allowed "off campus," and (as I later calculated) at the moment it happened I was walking up the hill back to school from having treated myself to pizza a block away. I learned about it roughly fifteen minutes later, as my computer class was about to start. Another student brought it up and the teacher relayed what little was known.
I was in 9th grade, and leaving the school after my morning midterm (I had no afternoon one that day). My dad picked me up, and Charles Lacquidara (then at WBCN) was doing the news. Lacquidara being what he is, both my father and I thought it was a joke -- despite the fact that he kept repeating that it wasn't -- until we got home. I spent the afternoon watching the news. I'm still tearing up about it as I write.
I was about to finish this response when my foot hit the power strip switch and shut everything down! grrrr!


Like Michael, I was also in 11th grade at Hunter College HS, and I first heard about it as I was waiting for class to begin. I was the first one in the room for Physics with Mr. Carmen Guarracino. The next student in was Damian Braiterman, who was a 10th grader and bright, but occasionally known for a cocky smartass attitude. He had a big grin on his face and told me the shuttle blew up. I of course did not believe him.

Next in was my lab partner, David Sakowitz, who told me the same thing. I thought there was a conspiracy against my usually somewhat gullible self, but no, I wasn't going to fall for it this time, so I didn't listen to him either.

A few more students, including the aforementioned Christina Sormani entered and all were saying the same thing. I still branded them conspirators and disregarded it.

When Mr Guarracino came in and agreed with the students, I started to wonder if it really was true, or if Mr G was in on this.

All doubt was finally erased when Dr Delores Glick, assistant principal, got on the PA and said "The Space Shuttle EX-PLO-DED". I'll never forget her accent and drawing-out of the word "exploded". I think we just talked about what happened to the shuttle for the entire Physics class.

On the train home that afternoon, I saw someone with an EXTRA! edition of the New York Post with the Full-page headline "SHUTTLE EXPLODES IN MIDAIR".

(I wonder if http://www.newseum.org has copies of those headlines. Somewhere I have the NY Times and NY Daily News from the day after. I started keeping banner headlines around that time.)

The irony is that my father was an elementary school teacher and early that same morning, I was at breakfast with him and was reading a Ny Times magazine article on the teacher in space program and asked Dad why he didn't apply. Glad he didn't!
I was contracting at Digital Equipment Corporation in Hudson, NH at the time. I was in the lunchroom -- not a proper room, but an area separated off by cube-style partitions -- when someone looking over the partition told us that Challenger had exploded.

I don't think I got much done the rest of the day. The radio was repeating variations and elaborations and interviews for hours afterward. When I got home, I got onto CIS chat (or whatever they called it in those days), where quite a number of regulars had gathered. It was an appropriate place to share grief.


I was too young to remember anything at the time. I'm a recent grad of Hunter College High School, and I just wanted to say Ms Francine Salzman still teaches there and people still talk about how glad we are that she did not make the program.
A recent grad? Hey, who are you and when did you graduate?

December 2016

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