January 28, 1986. It was either a Tuesday or a Thursday. I can’t remember which. I can only remember that it was because my college classes were at the campus close to my home that morning. I will never forget coming home from my classes that day.
There was a shuttle launch scheduled. I was relieved to learn that I hadn’t missed it. I hated missing launches. This one was special. It had a teacher on board, Christa McAuliffe. She had beat out my sister and thousands of others who had applied for the opportunity to be the first teacher in space. When NASA had announced the program, my sister, Meg (an elementary teacher,) had jumped on it. I’d helped her with the application and been as excited as any geek could be at the prospect of launching my elder sibling into orbit.
Shuttle launches were becoming routine. They’d been happening at regular intervals for the past five or six years with no mishaps and we were growing complacent about them.
But I am a space geek. In my imagination, I rode shotgun on every launch. I hated missing any of them. We had it timed to a science. We could watch the countdown and the ignition and the first minute of flight on the television, then run outside to catch sight of the shuttle on a clear day (or night) as it became visible over the curve of the Earth and the tree-line.
Oh, it was always spectacular!
It always left me just a little sad to be left behind on Earth.
That morning in 1986 was no different from the others. I chatted with my mother about my classes that morning as we waited to see if the launch was a go. There had been some concern about ice on the shuttle.
Yes, I know. Ice in Florida…who’d a-thunk it? Believe me. It happens.
They announced it was a go. We counted down in anticipation. On the edge of our seats, we watched the ignition. The shuttle cleared the tower and rose with aching slowness into the brilliant blue sky.
After the first minute, my mother and I ventured out onto our pool patio, as we often did, to catch sight of the shuttle as it gained altitude.
It was a clear, cold day. The air was so crisp and sharp you could cut fruit with it.
We stood on the patio waiting and watching for the contrail. We waited. We waited some more. My brow furrowed. Something was amiss. Conditions were perfect for being able to see the shuttle. My mother and I exchanged concerned looks and murmured in confusion that “we should see something by now.” We did see something strange — an oddly-shaped vapor trail that never rose far above the tree-line.
After a while, we went back inside to see what was going on. The same oddly-shaped vapor trail was on the television screen. Our confusion was replaced with disbelief, then horror as we realized the tragedy we had witnessed.
The Challenger had exploded, killing all seven aboard. That was the preliminary report. It later came to light that they had been alive until crashing into the ocean.
All I could think of was “What if Meg had been aboard?”
Like the rest of the nation, I wept for the lost astronauts. In the days that followed, I was comforted by Ronald Reagan’s eloquent speech honoring them. I still think the line “They have slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God” to be the most brilliant line from a speech that I have ever heard.
Today, twenty-seven years later, I remember the Challenger Seven: Christa McAuliffe, Michael J. Smith, Richard Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Judith Resnik. The events of their passing are still as fresh in my mind today as they were that cold, clear, Florida morning as I stood on the pool patio staring at the horizon, waiting for the doomed space craft.
God’s speed to you.