Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger: 30 Years Ago Today

It's amazing how much I can remember about an event that occurred thirty years ago today.  On January 28th 1986 I was six years old and in the first grade.  I remember our class being led to the library where the primary classes gathered around a pair of televisions set back-to-back to watch the live launch of NASA's Challenger. I can only assume the older children were similarly gathered in the gymnasium, as our library wasn't large enough to fit everyone. We were told that children in schools around the world were watching the same thing on television at the same time.  We were very excited, we could tell from the way the adults talked about the launch that it was an important day, that there was a woman who was a teacher who was going to go to space.  She was going to share her adventure with kids around the world in a way that most adults couldn't... she was a teacher, and teachers knew how to talk to kids in an engaging and exciting way. She could have been any one of our teachers!  This was exciting and special, and we were going to watch history be made. We were going to see it as it happened, not on a boring news clip at home that night.  We were hyped.  As we gathered on the floor of the library, we fidgeted and chattered excitedly.  One of the teachers tried to explain to us what we were going to see, that once the shuttle left the atmosphere we wouldn't see it anymore, but that would be when the astronauts (and the teacher!) would enter space and start their adventure. They had been preparing us for this all week, talking about space, shuttles, astronauts and rockets, and we'd point out to our parents any news-clip about the teacher-turned-astronaut, and the upcoming launch, sharing the oh-so-important information we had learned about it in school.
We saw the launch, which was boring until they started the countdown, when things became very exciting.  We saw the big trail of smoke that followed the launch, knowing that it should go up until we couldn't see it anymore, then there was a big ball of fire and audible gasps from the teachers in the room, and confusion from the people on TV.  Clearly something had gone horribly wrong, but we didn't understand what had happened.  It was more the reaction of the grownups in the room that tipped us off that something very bad had happened.  Without understanding why, many of us began crying as the teachers hurried to try and figure out if they should shut the television off or not.  Then a voice on the TV said that there were likely no survivors, and the decision was made, the screen became blank. They spoke in hushed voices, trying to figure out how and what to tell us about what we had just seen and heard.   
That's all I really remember from that day, except that I have a vague memory of being at home that night when my parents were watching the news which covered the story once again.  I know my parents struggled to explain to me what had happened in terms appropriate for a 6-year-old, which must have been rather difficult to do.  What happened between the explosion and getting home I couldn't begin to tell you, but I can imagine how difficult the next hours were for teachers and parents surrounded by children who were scared, confused, and sad.  I know that I'll always remember that feeling of excitement turned to confusion and dread that was so new to one so young.