I know that not everyone will remember that date. I also know that it will not hold the same significance for each person. Mostly, I’m writing this because I just wanted to share my memory of that day, and to pose the question to anyone who reads this and does remember so that you may also share your experience. It doesn’t have to be an eloquent piece, as mine most certainly will not be. Just your recollection of where you were, what you were doing at the time, and how it affected you (if it did). I do not wish for this thread to turn into a debate on the merits (or lack of) of space travel, NASA’s efforts, or anything similar. So if it seems to that track, I will ask the Mods to close this thread.
I was thirteen years old and in my last year of middle school in 1986. The pressures of high school were not yet looming in my mind, though I knew full well that my choices there could help me with this silly notion of someday becoming an astronaut. Several friends of mine had been fortunate enough to go to Space Camp, but my family, while not a poor family by any means, just really couldn’t afford to send me. Although, in the previous fall, we did have a one-day eighth grade class tour of the Huntsville Space & Rocket center. I was enamoured, to say the least.
My science class was split every day with lunch period at 11 AM. Our teacher usually ate her lunch in the library or in the teacher’s lounge. The cafeteria was located downstairs, beneath the library. On this particular day, we had shuffled our way down there, finished lunch, and were lining up on the stairs to go back to the classroom. That’s when Mr. Gass, the school custodian, was on his way downstairs and told us “the shuttle blew up”. Now, you have to understand, he was always one for joking around, so none of us believed him. But then we saw her … our teacher. She was visibly shaken and crying as she darted by the door, on her way from the library to the lounge. The news was true. I don’t know how far in the selection process she had made it, but I do know she had applied for the Teacher in Space. Her reaction was a natural one of shock and grief for the crew. And I’m sure thoughts of “it could have been me” ran through her mind as well.
The rest of that day was filled with images and memories. Just hours before, these seven astronauts, in their cobalt blue flight suits, were waving to the cameras as they boarded the space shuttle Challenger for STS-51L. And their mission began and ended in all of 70 seconds. It was surreal and confusing. I was too young to have experienced the disasters of the rocket era, and as far as I was concerned, these things just were not supposed to happen. Strangely enough, it didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for pursuing a career in the astronaut program (engineering calculus would eventually do that).
Somehow, in the years since, I ended up becoming an architect rather than the astronaut I once dreamt of being. Though, to this day, my admiration and fascination with the space program has not faded. And each year I have taken a moment to remember the men and women lost, and their colleagues and families whose lives were forever changed. Then last year, on 1 February 2003, not a week after the 17th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, seven more brave souls were lost on their way home with shuttle Columbia on STS-107. So here is a brief, humble remembrance of both crews.
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Judith A. Resnik, Mission Specialist
Ronald E. McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison S. Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Gregory B. Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist (Teacher in Space)
Rick D. Husband, Commander
William C. McCool, Pilot
Michael P. Anderson, Payload Commander
David M. Brown, Mission Specialist
Kalpana Chawla, Mission Specialist
Laurel Blair Salton Clark, Mission Specialist
Ilan Ramon, Payload Specialist