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Challenger Stories

As expected, my note about today being the 19th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy prompted a few personal replies, including people's stories of where they were when they heard the news.

For my generation, this is our equivalent of the JFK assassination or the 9/11 attacks.

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 know that a lot of people's stories include watching the launch live on television; for some reason, our school hadn't bothered to set anything like that up for us. So we weren't watching.

But we got the news, and this part I will never forget. 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.


In my case, I'd just moved out to LA at the beginning of the month, and had just a few days ago bought a television set. For some odd reason, I turned it on as I was finishing getting ready to go to work, something I don't usually do. And by coincidence, it was on what I think turned out to be the only station in LA that was showing the launch. The launch had been delayed, so I wasn't expecting to see it at that point.

But, the countdown was almost over, so I decided to delay leaving for work for a few minutes to watch the launch. So I saw the explosion.

I immediately called up some friends, who were shocked, as well as calling work to say I wouldn't be in for a bit. When I did get into work, a lot of the morning was spent with others in front of tvs in the conference rooms; I was working at a research institute at the time.

In addition to the shock of the explosion, my other main memory is of the sheer stupidity of the White House press corps. About 20 minutes after the explosion, there was a brief press conference where the Presidential press secretary came out and said something on the order of "We've told President Reagan about the explosion, and he is praying/hoping that somehow the astronauts may have survived." And that's really all anyone could expect to hear. But the reporters immediately started asking questions such as "Will this permanently affect the US space program?" (yeah, 20 minutes after a complete surprise and shock, we've already made a decision that doesn't need to be made in haste) and about things NASA might know but a political press secretary wouldn't. It seemed they just wanted to get on the air with something, even if there was really nothing they could ask that would either make sense or actually amplify the very limited and only thing that had and really could've been said at that point. It kept going to the point that even the press secretary got noticibly irked at it, and you could tell he wanted to say something very harsh but was managing to restrain himself.

I'm of an age to be right on the cusp of JFK knowledge; he was shot a couple of weeks before my 3rd birthday. It's somewhat odd that I don't recall, and haven't for a very long time, any of the reaction of adults around me to that....but I do recall watching Mercury missions blast off.


disasters and friends

When I was a little girl I wanted to be a cosmonaut. Cosmonauts could be women you see. Then, when I was in third grade, I read a book about cosmonauts that described in some terrifying detail the deaths of Vladimir Komarov, Georgi Dobrovolsky, Viktor Patsayev and Vladislav Volkov. I later found out about the Apollo fire. Since then I've always held a deep abiding concern for all spacefaring humans. I followed Voyager missions closely but always felt nervous when a manned mission was planned.

My good friend Michael, who I'd known since I was eleven, was always much more upbeat and optomistic about manned spaceflight. I knew his father had applied for the journalist-in-space program and that he himself was eager to take a spaceflight. When I heard about the Challenger disaster I knew I had to tell him right away so he wouldn't hear about it from some of our less understanding classmates. So that day is forever linked in my mind to a search for Michael around our highschool building.

September 11 is a disaster of a different magnitude but it also reminds me of a fellow Hunterite. As a New Yorker I was closely watching our local news, NY1, since it was not focussing on the buildings but on the events at ground level and how many people were actually escaping. Our former classmate, Arther Chen, was doing the reporting catching up with
coughing victims and asking what floors they'd come down from. Suddenly the whole building came down and his camara went dead. I don't know how much time passed before he reported in again. It seemed like an eternity. But hearing his voice calling in was a glimmer of hope to me in a very dark hour. While I hardly knew Arthur back in high school, he was the person I was most glad to see at the high school reunion.
It was the first date of my second term of college, and I have to change rooms that day - my first roomate basically kicked me out. After morning classes, someone came up to me and said "did you here Columbia exploded." Since I knew it was Challenger was laucnhing that day, I doubted at first, but found myself running to find someone with a TV. Sure enough, I arrived in time for the next replay of the ship's doom. I spend the rest of the day moving my stuff while listening to the coverage on the radio.
Goodness, I didn't realize you were that old. It was intersession of my junior year in college. I was in Worcester, MA, visiting a friend at Holy Cross College. We were half-heartedly watching the launch in Bob's room (he's a big model-rocketry fan, used to go to their conventions &c.), I had gone to the bathroom, and when I came back, they were showing the flight over and over.

December 2016

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