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.


  1. Thank you for taking time to write this account. That was a very busy time in my life and it had not crossed my mind that so many school children would have been receiving their introduction to mass tragedy. (I'm older than you and my intro occurred when I was an older child also in a school setting, when we heard the janitor come running down the hall and he flung open the door to our room and gasped - "they've shot the President".) (Think: two room rural school, class of 4th through 8th graders - I was one of the 7th graders.)

    Anyway, I found your blog through your link in Jenny's the bloggess' comment section - and wondered if you knew about Shannon Wiersbitzky's books? She writes children's/YA and in my opinion, does it very well. She has one that explores dementia/Alzheimer's issues. I read my granddaughter's copy and was glad to know that such a book is in the world. You might want to check it out: What Flowers Remember

  2. Thanks for your comment. I was reminded of that day when I saw all the posts and news coverage of the anniversary. I tend to process things best if I write them out, so this post was a bit cathartic for me. It's strange to be able to remember something so strongly from such a young age, there are only a handful of memories like that that have stuck with me. Part of it was that my mom and teachers made such a big deal out of what was going to happen, that when things went wrong I had way more questions and feelings about it than I would have if there hadn't been such a build up to that day. I was one of those kids that was constantly asking "but why." I must have driven my parents crazy with the continuous stream of questions when I was little!

    I've found some great blogs by following people's links in Jenny' comment section! :)

    I've never heard of that book or writer, but I'll check it out. Thank you!

  3. I am a shy commenter - thus the anon - I can't really explain it, anyway, I was hoping you would understand. I read through your amazon list of books to recommend which is why I thought you might like one more. Maybe it is/was particularly powerful to me because of the timing - watching my mother fade with dementia - or maybe it just really is a powerful book - would be interested to know what you think.