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Challenger Anniversary: 25 Years Ago Today

Today is the 25th 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.


I was in junior high at the time and I still remember it clearly. I was very into the space program (I wanted to be an astronaut) and after hearing about it and before learning much of the details, I remember talking with friends, telling them that if the explosion took place at a certain point, the crew could still make it back to Earth--or even into orbit.

It wasn't until I saw my science teacher crying that I realized it was a complete loss.

Hard to believe that was an entire generation ago.
I was only 5 at the time, but I still remember it. It's one of my very earliest memories. My parents were watching the news broadcasts that evening in the living room, and they kept showing the explosion, and my father told me it had blown up and killed the astronauts. I thought it must have been a bomb, because that was my association with things blowing up. For years afterwards, I was always terrified of things blowing up and killing me.
I don't think I knew you went to Hunter. I was on Jeopardy in the same week as someone who was either your class or a year or two behind. This came up because one of the other contestants was also a Hunter alum (neither of them were still living in New York at the time) and Trebek seized upon this as being a very cool thing.

I honestly can't remember if I saw the Challenger explode live or if I saw the footage later - I was in the first grade when it happened and I do remember everyone being very excited about it, and there being a lot of build-up to it. We definitely watched footage of the aborted launch date prior to the explosion and I definitely saw the explosion within a day or two of it happening but no idea if it was in the classroom or at home.
I was in 8th grade and home from school on a snow day. I didn't see the live launch, but I came in from shoveling and they were showing the recording of the footage over and over. It must have been pretty soon after it happened, with the newscasters still trying to get info on what exactly had occurred and what it meant. I was generally emotionally numb during that part of my life, and I didn't want my parents to see me cry, so I just sat, kind of subdued, until my feet had warmed up enough that I could go outside again. I think I spent most of the rest of the day like that, going outside until I was too cold to stand it, then coming back in and seeing what the latest news was.

September 11 was strikingly similar for me: waking up and coming into the living room after the event had happened, the same footage over and over, newscasters trying to make sense of it. I couldn't place it at the time; it just gave me a sense of deja vu that made that event seem as if it had happened before.

To end on a less-depressing note: the one shuttle launch I -do- remember watching was the one -after- the Challenger tragedy. The teacher wheeled the TV cart into my World Civilization class and I don't think there was a sound in the room through countdown... liftoff... the eerily similar trajectory through the sky... the newscasters saying here was where it had gone wrong... and then saying there were the [booster rockets? whatever it had been that caused the explosion] falling away, and it would appear to be safe. There was a second or two as it sunk in, and then the room erupted into cheers and hoots and laughter. I remember hearing the same from neighboring classrooms. For the rest of the day, it seemed like there was more eye contact in the hall, people glancing at other people and seeing the same half-smile, recognizing themselves in that other person, and glancing away self-consciously.
I have to admit that I remember the Challenger explosion all too well. We were watching it as a group in the high school auditorium.
The dangers of spaceflight were well-known then, and remain so even now, and yet we were shocked. These were brave, inspiring people taking significant risks to advance human knowledge (and potentially human dominion in our segment of the universe), and we'd already started to think of the shuttle launches as routine, and even boring. The Challenger crew were the latest (but not the last) explorers to lose their lives in the name of exploration. They are rightly to be honored, and remembered, for it.

Not to take anything at all away from those brave men and women aboard Challenger; however, to me, Challenger does not live in my memory as equivalent to the Kennedy assassination. The John Lennon murder holds that spot in my mind and heart.
Wow, 25 years. I was at work, stuck in cubicle-land, when a coworker with an office and thus the ability to listen to the radio came and told me. He tended toward practical jokes, so I told him that was in very bad taste and only then learned that he was serious. I remember watching that plume over and over that night on TV. :-(
I was fifteen. The head of the computer club was one of the alternates: had McAuliffe not flown, he was within 5 people of taking her spot.
Similar to you, I didn't believe my best friend when he told me. I was in between classes, and stood at the doorway of his French class (my social studies class was across the hall) watching the news until I was herded back into my regularly scheduled classroom.
the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination

Wonderfully said. That's exactly how it felt. Thankfully, it turned out not to be the sort of tragedy we feared it to be.

December 2016

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