Challenger: Thirty Years Later


The year was apparently 1986. I wouldn’t have known. After all, I was only 7 at the time. I was in second grade. The teacher’s name was Mrs. Morrow, or as my mom and I called her, Mrs. Moron. She was super mean. She was the kind of mean that makes you read Miss Nelson is Missing and think that you got Miss Viola Swamp as your full-time teacher.

Second grade was the year I learned to sneak out of class and hide in the hallways. I’d sneak to the library, having told the teacher I was going to the bathroom.

It was also the year I was Big Into Space. All over television, we were seeing things about the amazing teacher, Christa McAuliffe, who was going to travel into space. She was a woman. She was a teacher. She was going to get to RIDE ON A SPACESHIP.

I remember that morning. Everything seemed to be buzzing. The air felt electric. Back in the 80’s, remember, space shuttle launches were still things to celebrate. They felt like magical days. And here, I was stuck in Morrow the Moron’s room.

I did what any little kid would do, of course. I “went to the bathroom.” I remember sneaking into the library. The televisions were on. We used to have these gigantic tv’s that rolled around on these cumbersome media carts. Kids today and their smartboards and iPads. They’ll never quite know the excitement we could get from those media carts rolling into the classroom.

There it was on the screen. The sleek shuttle was getting ready to launch. In the bottom right-hand corner, I remember seeing a countdown. I mean, I could be wrong. It was thirty years ago today.

I remember peeking through the bookshelves. I was hiding still. After all, I was supposed to be in class. This was more exciting. Just one glimpse. That’s all I wanted.

I held my breath.

I remember counting down.

I remember…

The first bright explosion. The one that was supposed to happen. The rocket boosters they called them. The shuttle rose.

And rose.

And I held my breath.

And then between the shelves I saw more fire.

And a stream of smoke.

And then fireworks.

Except, as I would figure out later, they weren’t fireworks. They were the explosion of the shuttle.

Today, my son is one month away from being the same age as I was when the shuttle exploded. Just as I was seven. He is almost seven.

In thirty years, we have come so very far from that excitement of journeying into space. Today, we get to watch rovers traverse Mars, something we never thought would happen.

But for those moments in my youth, space shuttles were magic. Teachers like Christa McAuliffe were household names. For their brilliance and their bravery.

For that brief moment, as a nation held its breath, we watched magic turn tragic.

So today, even if it seems irrelevant in light of the tragedies since that day, I remember what it was like to be a crouching child, waiting breathlessly for shuttle to take off, waiting for the magic of science to take us to another planet. And I remember the horror of my first brush with tragedy and fiery death.

For all of us who, in that moment during our childhoods are bonded, this is to you.

May all the stars be as magical today as they were then and may those astronauts still be with us in our hearts and souls.

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