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Challenger Anniversary

Today is the 23rd 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.


I too didn't initially believe the first person who told me what had happened with Challenger.

That's happened to me several times: when Reagan was shot, when the Berlin Wall came down (I had lived in Germany just a few years prior, and they had no idea or hope that that was in their near future), and when the planes hit on 9/11. For the latter, I assumed the first plane was a little Cessna or something, and that it was accidental, so when someone said that another plane had hit, I said "That's not possible" because I knew two accidents like that couldn't happen in one day. And no other explanation occurred to me.

I find as I get older, though, I'm more inclined to accept bad news on its face. I don't know if that's good or bad.
I was the same way with the Challenger, but it didn't hit me as emotionally hard as the Wall did. (Lived a quarter-mile from it from 1973 to 1979.)

When Columbia broke up on re-entry, I was devastated. I came unglued.
Yes, emotionally I was hit a bit harder for Columbia than for Challenger, I think just because I had better understanding by then....
Their sacrifice is memorialized at Arlington National Cemetary.

Ellison Onizuka also is memorialized at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl (Pouwaina) on Oahu. His marker is next to the grave of WWII journalist Ernie Pyle.
Thank you for the reminder of the anniversary. I'd forgotten. Your description of the tragedy as our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination is definitely correct. I was in 8th grade at the time, and though I didn't see it live (only a handful of classes in my school were watching it),the explosion left a lasting impression on my life. I was totally in love with NASA at the time, and dreamed of someday being an astronaut, so I followed every launch carefully. I still remember coming home from school in tears and watching the explosion on the continuing news coverage over and over and over again with my parents, totally shocked about what had happened.
I was watching the launch of Challenger 51-L with my own eyes, from about 30 miles south of Cape Canaveral.

In past years, I have discussed my thoughts on that remarkably cold and clear January morning. For this year, I have a different thought to share ... here is a photograph of space shuttle Endeavour in orbit, taken on the flight in 2007 carrying Barbara Morgan (Christa McAuliffe's backup on the Teacher in Space flight assignment). I took this photo from Somerville MA. It should not have taken so long for Morgan to fly in space, but I am glad that it eventually happened.


Thanks for sharing that photograph.
I was sitting in that selfsame library, in the back office, when somebody very upset came in with the news. It might have been you, but I'm not certain. It was entirely shocking.
I cried too. I still cry. I just made a post about it if it would interest you.
It did. It was very nice.
I was in college at the time. As I had no morning classes that day, I had slept in. As is my usual habit, I turned on the local all-news radio station while getting dressed, and they were reporting on the Challenger explosion. I was convinced it was a War of the Worlds-style mock newscast, and I remember thinking that if they really wanted to convince people, they should have chosen something more plausible than the space shuttle blowing up. But after the story continued on and on, and I began to wonder if it wasn't real after all. So I turned on the TV, and they showed the footage. But likewise, when I told people about it, they also thought I was kidding.

At least one good thing came out of it -- an opportunity for Richard Feynman to show how cool he is in front of a national audience.
I remember I was in Physics class after lunch, first one in the room. Damian Braiteman, David Sakowitz and Christina Sormani all entered in sequence and told me the news. i thought it was a practical joke until Mr. Guarracino came in and said the same thing.

Ironically, I was having breakfast earlier that morning at home and reading the NY Times Magazine article on the teacher in Space, and asked my father, at the time a NYC public school teacher, why he didn't apply. Guess about 5 hours later, i was glad he didn't.

And on a side note regarding HCHS, did you hear that former principal maria LoFrumento passed away on Monday? Obit here: http://obits.nj.com/StarLedger/DeathNotices.asp?Page=LifeStory&PersonId=123411975
I heard the news about Maria LoFrumento from the HCHS alumni email. Sad.

December 2016

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