Wow. 30 years. I was 12.
One of Challenger’s SRBs burned a hole in the EFT and it exploded. This forced the space shuttle to disintegrate under sheer winds from the massive speed it had obtained during its 73 seconds of flight. All seven crew on board were killed that day.
Those are the cold facts.
The truth is deeper.
When I heard about the disaster, I was walking across the field between the tennis courts and the school building at my junior high. I didn’t believe it. Not for an instant. The space shuttles were, in my mind, infallible. Manned space travel had become routine. Normal. The usual thing. Nothing could go wrong. Ever. The space shuttles went up under a mighty plume of smoke and fire and returned to early on graceful wings to be refurbished and go up again.
I picked up a wood roofing tile that had blown from a nearby house and landed in the field. Tossing in the air, I said, “There goes a heat shield!” I still feel intensely guilty over this callous, unknowing act. Had I known the truth of the matter, no way a joke would have entered my mind, let alone escape my lips.
Over the course of the next two years, I got into many, many fights while defending the honor and memory of those seven brave astronauts. Every time I heard a joke about Challenger, I came out fists swinging. I didn’t even give the offender a chance to apologize or retract the note. Eventually, the jokes stopped. Partially because no one wanted to suffer my wrath and partially because they’d lost their appeal, even to the most crude teenage boy.
I battled my way through the inane jokes in part to atone for my own poor jest. Most of it came from the fact that I wanted to be an astronaut. Not in the childish sense of wanting to grow up to be a “cowboy jet fighter pilot” or some dreamy aspiration such as that. I’d done my research. I found out what it takes to get on a Space Shuttle. I set a goal and put myself on that path.
I took all of the advanced math and science and engineering classes I could get my hands on. I studied on my own. I had a plan that I’d made when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years old. I wanted to fly on a shuttle. Badly. Tasting the desire doesn’t come close to describing it. I felt it in my very core, in the depths of my soul.
When the Challenger disaster happened, my soul stopped working.
I remember getting to my speech and drama class on that day, which was held in the auditorium, so we could use the stage. The teacher had managed to get her hands on the last TV cart available in the school and set it up on the stage. She told us we could either watch the news during class or sit in the back of the auditorium and practice our monologues. By this time, I’d learned the truth of the news.
I sat and watched as the video of the explosion and destruction played on loop. Loop. Loop. Over and over. More looping.
I cried each time because I felt my soul’s desire die a little more each time.
I still cry when I see a still or a video of the Challenger launch. Just the word “Challenger” makes my heart skip a beat each time I see it or hear it.
When I got home that afternoon from school, I found my “become an astronaut plan” and read it over and over. I ended up burning the tear-stained paper later that night. I wish I’d kept it. There were some great ideas on there. Things like:
- Do your best
- Get high grades
- Space Camp
- Apply for Air Force Academy
- (I had the application in hand already and it was filled out.)
- Graduate with honors
- Become a pilot
- Excel at flying
- Enter astronaut training
- Fly Space Shuttle
There were some other steps in there as well, but this is what I’m putting together from memory. I had spent hours in the library (school and public) researching what it took to get to where I wanted to go.
The day Challenger vanished into that bright ball of smoke and fire, my dreams died.
The next year in school, we had to do a seven page research paper. I chose the Challenger disaster because the congressional report had just been released, it was still in the news, and I had ample resources to pick from. I also wanted to know what had killed my dream, what had killed those astronauts, and what had destroyed the Space Shuttle.
We had six weeks to produce a research paper. I asked for a one-week extension because I wasn’t done with my references pages, and I needed that week to get it right. The teacher gladly granted me the week because she knew how hard I’d worked on the paper. She and the librarian had worked together to get me a copy of the congressional report. (Keep in mind, kids, this is before the Internet.) I still love both of those ladies for their efforts on my behalf. I’m not sure how many times I read that report. I wanted to keep it, but it apparently was an expensive thing to obtain back in the day. I returned it to the library (very late, but no fees) very much more worn than when I received it.
Before the end of my one-week extension, I turned in a twenty-eight page paper, and another six pages of references. The teacher asked me if she could enter the work into some essay contest. I was okay with the idea. I honestly didn’t pay much attention. It turned out to be a national thing for some presidential essay competition. I ended up ranking fairly high with my paper, but didn’t win. I remember getting a letter from the Secretary of Education over it. I don’t recall what happened to that letter.
The competition wasn’t important to me. Compiling, assembling, building, and discovering the facts was what I cared about. When I learned that the failure, while a technical one, was more to do with politics and funding and human arrogance, I lost faith in NASA’s administration. I still believed the engineers, astronauts, and scientists there to be the brightest and best in the world. However, I learned they were hampered by the bureaucrats running the show.
Not much has changed.
I found new goals and new aspirations to reach for. I’ve achieved them. I’m content. I’m happy.
However, the eight-year-old in me still looks up at the stars at night and wonders, “What if?”
Godspeed, Challenger and crew.
In loving memory of:
- Francis R. Scobee, Commander
- Michael J. Smith, Pilot
- Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
- Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
- Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
- Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
- Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist