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Challenger Anniversary

Today is the 24th 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 Cemetery.

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.


My father got to see the event in person. At the time, he was still working in engineering management, and he was in Florida to meet with a supplier of the company he then worked for, Fluor Daniel. The man he was meeting with interrupted their conversation and asked if he'd like to watch the shuttle launch; he said yes, and the man opened the curtains to his office. I don't know exactly where they were, but my dad describes being able to see the launch and initial lift fairly close by.

When the explosion happened, they both were watching, and my dad turned to him and said "That's not supposed to happen, is it?", in tones I am quite sure were not really a question. The man said "No, it's not.", and they turned on the TV to find out what had happened.

I remember where I was, too, but I've written about that elsewhere (I can't find it at the moment, but I know I have, likely in response to a previous memorandum you posted. Thanks for posting these; I appreciate them.
My memories are fairly similar. I was given the news by a friend as we waited for our Engineering Statistics class to begin. It may be the only event in my life where I remember exactly what I said. "Yeah, sure, the space shuttle blew up." Memory being what it is, the memory may not be accurate, but I'm not sure how important that is.
I just can't believe it's been that long. Time sure does fly. My heart broke that day.
I was in between classes. I was approaching my classroom when two friends who were coming the other way told me about the explosion. We went into their class to watch the TV for a few moments, and then the bell rang and I went to my own room. We watched it for a few minutes, and then the teacher turned off the TV. We talked about it for a few minutes before diving into our regular lesson, on the rationale that what we did wouldn't affect the outcome, so we might as well do our lessons. I don't disagree with that decision, though it was obviously a bit more difficult to stay on task.

It was made a little more real when I found out that one of the runners-up for McAuliffe's spot (I think he was third on the list) was one of the Jr. high science teachers in my town. I didn't have him for his science class, but he was one of the prime movers at the after-school computer club to which I belonged.
I was 9 at the time. The news was broken into a childrens sketch comedy programme as it happened (UK time so it was after school had finished). Given the nature of the programme I originally thought it was some form joke.

I only realised it was read when it was repeated an hour or so later in the 6 o clock news, and it felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.

I vividly remember saying to my Mum "But that was on splash(I think) it's not real!".
I still remember watching it live from my fourth grade classroom. Most of us didn't actually understand exactly what had happened until our teacher gasped and tried to hold back her tears (unsuccessfully). I don't know that there's anything I'll ever remember more vividly - not even the 9/11 attacks (I remember those vividly, but in a different sort of way).

December 2016

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