GeekMom Memories of the Challenger Disaster

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Main engine exhaust, solid rocket booster plume and an expanding ball of gas from the external tank is visible seconds after the Space Shuttle Challenger accident on Jan. 28, 1986. Credit: NASA

While reminiscing on the shuttle program here on GeekMom, it was hard not to think about where we were and what we were doing when Challenger exploded.

Helene McLaughlin (Me)

I was only three and a half when it happened, so I have no memory of the actual event. However, I remember being very young and there being a lot of talk about the shuttle program and I remember people talking about it with sadness. It wasn’t till I was a few years older and learned about the disaster in school, that I understood why they were so sad.

Corrina Lawson

I was working the drive-through at the Burger King near where I was attending college when the Challenger exploded. One of my drive-through customers told me about it.

I said “Not the shuttle flight with the teacher?” They said, “Yes, it’s terrible.”

After I got off-shift, I went home and saw the video. I also talked to some friends who I knew in the Coast Guard much later. One of them was stationed on a ship that did search and recovery for the Challenger. He told me that they knew very quickly after the explosion that it was entirely possible the crew had survived the fall until they were killed on impact, which in fact turned out to be the case.

I was fascinated at the time by what could have happened to cause the explosion and later appalled that it was something simple as the O-rings being vulnerable to cold. I followed much of the later reports about how the warning signs had been ignored.

Patricia Vollmer

I was in middle school (7th grade) when the Challenger exploded.  The only reason I didn’t actually see it live on TV was because my part of the school had lunch during that time.  So half the school saw the explosion on TV, half of us heard about it during our next class (which happened to be science…my usually unemotional Mrs. Kelly got pretty emotional).

Jennifer D.

We were watching it in math class. I was in middle school. My mother had applied to go so it was very emotional for me when it exploded.


I was in school and remember my teacher bringing in a TV to watch the coverage. I had just read a book on women who had won the the Nobel prize and was idolizing Marie Curie, Irene Curie, Pearl S. Buck, and others. I viewed Christa McAuliffe as belonging to that same category of role models, at a time when I was really searching for someone to look up to. I admired her, and was horrified by her death.

Nicole Wakelin

I was sitting in French class watching the whole thing on TV and it was devastating when the Challenger exploded.  I can hardly watch that even today. Christa McAuliffe was a local teacher, we idolized her and just couldn’t believe it. It was sad, but at the same time inspiring. She risked it all and lost, but left such an example of what a woman could achieve. I still look at her as a hero.

Judy Berna

I was a freshman in college when the Challenger disaster happened. I was an elementary education major, so the fact that a teacher was going up into space was exciting. I returned from morning classes to find my roommate glued to the tiny TV in our dorm room.

When I walked in the door she turned to me and said three simple words, “It blew up.”

It didn’t process in my brain. I said, “What? What blew up?”

“The space shuttle. It blew up on take off.”

It took me a long time, and hours in front of the TV, watching the video replay, over and over, to comprehend what that meant. In my mind, there was no chance a space shuttle could ever blow up. It just wasn’t even possible, with all the expertise we had in our space program.

The first moon walk was when I was a two year old, so I grew up believing NASA was all powerful, and never failing. It didn’t make sense, in my safe, ordered world, that a tragedy like this could happen, and a teacher, one of us, could die in such an accident.

I later married a man who is from New Hampshire, and heard his stories, about how it had affected his state, the teacher’s hometown. Every time we found out about an award, or an event, honoring her, I thought of that moment, in my dorm room, when my view of how the world works changed forever.

Ironically, my husband’s brother, my brother-in-law, is a planetarium designer and he helped design the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium.

These were the memories of the GeekMoms. What is your memory of the Challenger Disaster? Where were you? What were you doing? What effect did it have on you?

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19 thoughts on “GeekMom Memories of the Challenger Disaster

  1. I had just turned three so I don’t remember the event itself really.but the first clear memory I do have is the news and all the conversations and knowing something terrible had happened without really knowing what it was

  2. I was 9, and we were all in the library at school watching the launch. We were sitting on the floor watching a TV that had been set on a counter. I honestly don’t remember what happened immediately after we saw the Challenger explode, whether we stayed in the library or were ushered back to our classrooms, but I remember the feeling of utter disbelief and shock (in so much as a 9 year old can feel shocked). Like Judy said, it just didn’t even seem possible that something like that could happen, especially with a teacher on board.

  3. I was a freshman at the Bronx High School of Science. I was at lunch, and a friend of mine (a known prankster) came up to me and said “The shuttle exploded.” My first reaction was “That’s not funny.” He swore he wasn’t joking.

    I don’t remember the rest of that day, but that night, I saw the video, and it is burned into my memory, and is one of the three things I can see perfectly if I close my eyes (Challenger exploding, Columbia coming apart, and the Towers coming down — why is my perfect recall only associated with disasters?). I still flinch when I see the video.

    Now I live in Central Florida, and I can see the shuttles going up from my driveway. For every launch, I’m out there holding my breath and praying.

  4. I was a sophomore in high school and I was skipping class, hanging about the lockers. The hallways were pretty deserted and a friend of mine came running down the hall. He excitedly told me that Challenger had exploded.

    I don’t remember much else from that day. I’m sure it was filled with discussions and news reports, but I clearly recall being told in that empty hallway and feeling shocked with the echo of the news ringing in my ear.

  5. I was a high school senior and found out about it from a friend as my Calculus class started. Like Judy, my first thought (and the first thing that popped out of my mouth) was, “That’s not supposed to happen.”

    From this I learned that no matter how advanced the technology, accidents will still happen.

  6. I remember the day so clearly – it was traumatic, but not for the obvious reasons. I was in second grade. Our class was not watching the launch but my teacher had slipped into an adjacent classroom (it was one of those semi-open floor plan type of schools) to watch and she came back crying. The teachers spent the rest of the day whispering and hugging and acting very out-of-character. I remember being very scared because no one told us what had happened but it was clear that whatever it was, it was awful because all of the adults were very distraught. I obviously assumed that something had happened locally or to someone at the school but I was not the type of kid to ask questions so I just worried internally. When I got home, my parents asked if “anything unusual” had happened at school. They were, I think, trying to find out if I had seen the launch because and had decided not to say anything about it if I hadn’t. I didn’t like to ever admit that I was scared, so I denied everything and just continued to invent increasingly horrific disaster scenarios in my imagination. I had nightmares of impending doom (plague and alien invasion were two of the things I thought most likely) until the next issue of Time magazine came out. Thank goodness that my parents subscribed to a newsweekly and that I was a proficient reader! By that time it was actually a relief to find out that it was *only* the space shuttle exploding that had everyone so upset.
    Keeping this experience in mind, I make an effort to be open with my kids about world events. Kids are not as clueless as we sometimes think – they know when there is something going on. And imaginations can run away and be far more frightening than reality. So while I don’t go into the graphic details of nuclear meltdown or google bin laden death photos with my kids, I do try to explain events that they hear about on the news or see in the papers in terms that are age appropriate. I wish someone had done that for me with the Challenger disaster.

  7. I was on my way to a history class at the local university when it happened. By the time I found a parking spot and made it to my class, there was a note on the door, saying due to the national catastrophe, classes were canceled for the rest of the day. And I thought, “What catastrophe?” Since that was the only class I had that day, I headed back home and heard that the shuttle had exploded on the radio. When I got home, I ran to the TV and turned it on, and there it was. Having grown up in the shadow of NASA, determined to be an astronaut when I grew up, it was like a physical blow. Dick Scobee had led two of the field trips we’d taken in junior high to NASA, so… it was personal. It’s one of those days that will always stand out in my memory. Same with the day the Columbia exploded. I think about it every time I make biscuits because that’s what I was doing when our whole house shook and everything in the cupboards rattled and danced on the shelves. I’ll never forget that day, either.

  8. We coincidentally had a snow day the day of the shuttle launch, and I was watching at home– my mom was doing chores around the house and popping in every so often. I was a third grader. As I watched it happen, I felt a bit of a disconnect from the whole thing– it was something on TV, not quite real, even when my mother popped into the room to say “What happened? Oh no! How horrible!” and so forth.

    But about a week later in school we were going over the Weekly Reader writeup of the event together. That’s when it sunk in– what a wonderful thing it would have been to see the programs they’d had planned to show kids in space, and how all those kids had lost their teacher– and everyone in the class was bawling by the end of the period. That’s the part I remember most.

    1. Funny you mentioned the snow day. My husband (from Long Island, NY) also had a snow day on Jan. 28, 1986, and there were snowflakes recorded at Kennedy Space Center the day of the launch.

  9. The Challenger exploded the day before my 6th birthday. I remember being home with my grandmother, listening to it on the radio, and just being utterly shocked and so sad. At the time, my answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was an astronaut, so it just really affected me. Today, I can’t read or watch anything about the Challenger without tearing up for those brave astronauts who “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God”.

  10. Like a lot of you here, I was watching the TV coverage as it happened. My 5th grade class had crowded around the TV in the back of the room to catch the launch just before we went to lunch. It didn’t register with me that the shuttle had blown up until later; I thought it was just the boosters that had blown up because of the continued trail past the explosion.

    Does anyone remember watching the Punky Brewster episode that dealt with the Challenger tragedy?

  11. I will never forget it because it was on my 7th birthday. My second grade class talked about it, and I remember being sad because I was celebrating my birthday that day (basically being alive) and all those people had died. I remember it every year on my birthday and say a little prayer for those who died and their families.

    1. My birthday is the 30th and I turned 11 that year. While not actually having watched it live, I remember hearing about it in 5th grade Music class.

  12. I honestly don’t remember it. My mother swears I saw it, and I was old enough I should, so I may have blocked it. The next summer we went to Florida for vacation, Disney, the beach, the usual. We were headed somewhere in the car and out the window we saw it happen again. My mother nearly swerved off the road in shock. We had no idea that NASA was doing tests to find out what went wrong. She told me once that I was very shaken up by it. All I know is that to this day I tear up at the thought of Challenger but I still can’t pull up any memories of it.

  13. I played “sick” in 7th grade just so I could stay home and watch the launch (for whatever reason we weren’t watching at school). I was home alone watching. I was so upset I called my mom at her exercise class (there was a payphone at the back of the room) and I was sobbing so hard that I could barely explain. My awesome mom came right home.

  14. I was in 7th grade also, in Florida. My friends and I were at lunch and watched the plume cloud from the launch and saw the explosion. I remember talking about it for days even months afterwards.

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