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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Challenger: Twenty years ago today...

It was twenty years ago today, about this very moment, that I was sitting at the end of a long table at my old school. Two of my sixth-grade classmates joined me for lunch. And that's when Ashton told me...

"Hey Chris, the space shuttle blew up."

I thought he was kidding. Only thing I knew to reply with was "No it didn't." The only thing was, Ashton didn't really look like he was kidding at all. I don't know why I didn't take him at his word right then.

Now Shane spoke up: "Chris, yes it did! The space shuttle Challenger exploded after it launched!" And I was still in denial about it. This was all a joke... had to be. Maybe they wanted to see how I'd react to something like that. I remember silently thinking to myself "yeah sure", just sort of going along with them.

And then I happened to catch the table two rows away from where we were sitting, where the seventh graders were having lunch, and whatever the hell it was they were talking about they sure seemed pretty damned shaken up and upset about it. That's when I caught the words "shuttle" and "challenger" and "all dead".

Our teacher happened to walk past where we were sitting. "Miss Martin, I'm hearing that the shuttle blew up. Is that true?" She nodded and said "Yes".

Well, what else can I tell you about that day: the whole class was in shock after we got back from lunch and she confirmed everything to us. That's all we were talking about the rest of the day, there was no more real class. She was a pretty lousy teacher but I gotta give her credit for not trying to focus our attention on lessons when there was a helluva lot more on our minds. I remember a lot of people asking me questions about what I thought about it, me being sorta the resident "space geek" at our school, but I didn't mind being that. Not that I had much to tell them: so far all I knew was what our teacher had told us. Mom picked my sister and I up a little after 3 that afternoon and she told us more about it, said that she'd been watching it on TV all afternoon and that it was "terrible". The car's radio was tuned into a Christian station and one of the announcers was asking everyone to "keep the people at NASA and our astronauts in prayer". We had to pick up something in town for Dad, and it was a little before 4 when we got back home. The very first thing I saw when I came thorugh the front door was a picture of Christa McAuliffe - the "teacher in space" - being shown on television. Then Dan Rather. And a few minutes later CBS ran what was for me the very first time I saw what happened a few hours earlier that morning...

I think I actually said "Dear God in Heaven" after seeing that.

Dad came in a little later from the barn (he was still a dairy farmer at this point) and we all watched some of the coverage together: as he often said about things like this, "this is what you'll be reading about in the history books years from now." CBS played the footage of the disaster maybe a half-dozen more times, before later that afternoon President Reagan spoke live from the White House. I remember that very well: listening to what has since been considered to be the greatest speech of his presidential career. You can read it here if you like, but if you ever get the chance to someday you really owe it to yourself to listen to a recording of it, or watch a video of him doing this. That may have been the last time we had a President who made a speech that sounded seriously presidential. When I went to D.C. a year and a half ago to pay my respects to Reagan as his casket lay in state at the Capitol, it was his Challenger speech that I most kept thinking about.

That's what dominated the rest of the night, and the next day, and the next few weeks after that. At 11 years old I'd already heard that people old enough remembered exactly where they were when they heard that Pearl Harbor had been attacked, or that JFK had been shot. Now it was my generation's turn to have something forever burned so indelibly into our minds. Everyone who was old enough on January 28th, 1986 will be able to tell you where they were and who they were with, and everything else that happened right after that, when they heard about the Challenger. This has been my own tale to tell.

I don't know what else to say with this post. There's plenty enough information on the Internet about STS-51L, the final Challenger mission, for anyone who's interested. Anything more that I could do here would just be reiterating ground already well-covered. But I couldn't let this day go by without doing what I could to take off my hat in respect to the seven who died that day, and acknowledge that day for the impact it had in not just my life, but that of just about everyone who was around back then.

I don't really know how to close this out: nothing I could write would ever do justice to the memory of the Challenger Seven. So I'll just let the following images speak for themselves...

Challenger launches on mission STS 51-L, January 28 1986

The crew of Challenger
FRONT ROW L-R: pilot Mike Smith, commander Dick Scobee, mission specialist Ron McNair
BACK ROW L-R: mission specialist Ellison Onizuka, Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, mission specialist Judith Resnik