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This Day In History, 1986: Challenger Explodes

(MAB: Anyone who knows me knows what I will always remember about this day...)

January 28, 1986

At 11:38 a.m. EST, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and Christa McAuliffe is on her way to becoming the first ordinary U.S. civilian to travel into space. McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire, won a competition that earned her a place among the seven-member crew of the Challenger. She underwent months of shuttle training but then, beginning January 23, was forced to wait six long days as the Challenger's launch countdown was repeatedly delayed because of weather and technical problems. Finally, on January 28, the shuttle lifted off.

Seventy-three seconds later, hundreds on the ground, including Christa's family, stared in disbelief as the shuttle exploded in a forking plume of smoke and fire. Millions more watched the wrenching tragedy unfold on live television. There were no survivors.

In 1976, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) unveiled the world's first reusable manned spacecraft, the Enterprise. Five years later, space flights of the shuttle began when Columbia traveled into space on a 54-hour mission. Launched by two solid-rocket boosters and an external tank, only the aircraft-like shuttle entered into orbit around Earth. When the mission was completed, the shuttle fired engines to reduce speed and, after descending through the atmosphere, landed like a glider. Early shuttles took satellite equipment into space and carried out various scientific experiments. The Challenger disaster was the first major shuttle accident.

In the aftermath of the explosion, President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission to determine what went wrong with Challenger and to develop future corrective measures. The presidential commission was headed by former secretary of state William Rogers, and included former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot Chuck Yeager. The investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of an "O-ring" seal in one of the two solid-fuel rockets. The elastic O-ring did not respond as expected because of the cold temperature at launch time, which began a chain of events that resulted in the massive explosion. As a result of the explosion, NASA did not send astronauts into space for more than two years as it redesigned a number of features of the space shuttle.

In September 1988, space shuttle flights resumed with the successful launching of the Discovery. Since then, the space shuttle has carried out numerous important missions, such as the repair and maintenance of the Hubble Space Telescope and the construction of the International Space Station. To date, there have been more than 100 space shuttle flights.

In Memoriam: Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe

For more information on the lives of the crew: http://www.hq.nasa.gov/office/pao/History/Biographies/challenger.html


My rabbi grew up with Judith Resnik. They weren't super-close, but, well, the Jewish community in Akron, Ohio was pretty small, so they knew each other.
I remember finding out as I walked into gym class. We were all pretty disbelieving.

(Oddly enough, I have a memory of hearing the news in the junior high school gymnasium, but that makes no sense! Junior high school was '81/'82 and '82/'83. Perhaps I'm transposing some other nasty happening onto this?)
I found out after my dad picked me up from what was my first cub scout meeting. They hadn't announced it at school or anything, but Lubavitch wass like that. At home, I saw the footage on TV. I remember my parents being more concerned about how I'd take it than my actual reaction, which was fairly low-level.
I was eight years old.

My class and I were watching it live on TV.

All I can remember is seeing the explosion on TV, and that's it. Nothing else of that day. The next thing I remember on the subject was the inevitable jokes that followed...
I was in fifth grade. The sixth and seventh graders were the envy of the school that day because they were going to get to watch the launch in their classrooms instead of doing their lessons. That was the last year that Peabody elementary schools went up to the seventh grade. The next year junior high schools were replaced with middle schools.

I was in math class when the adjoining door behind us flew open. The sixth grade English teacher stood there, one hand still on the door knob, the other white knuckling around the doorframe. Her lips were trembling, her eyes wide and frozen. I'd never seen an adult that upset before. For a moment her mouth opened and closed, her jaw working soundlessly. When her voice suddenly returned, she blurted out, "It exploded," and her hands fell to her side.

It wasn't until later that I saw the actual explosion, replayed on the six o'clock news. So when I remember that moment, that's not the image that comes to mind. No, it's that teacher's face. It's her expression that stays with me, to remind me of the horror and shock of that moment.
I remember visiting a prep school. I was there for a couple of days to see if it would be a good fit for me after the private school I'd been going to. The TV was on in one of the TV rooms, and I sat and watched for a while.

I was in High School

In English class. My best friend just kept repeating, "But it's my birthday" as if that would make it not have happened.

What sticks with me, though, is because of so many school activities, I never actually saw the explosion on the news. I wasn't home in time.

I finally saw it a year and a half later, when I went to Space Academy in Huntsville, Alabama. They showed us the NASA inquiry tapes made during the official investigation.

Now I will forever remember the Challenger in slow-motion, with insets, close-ups , and explanation upon explanation.


December 2016

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