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Friday, January 28, 2011

Where I Was...The Challenger Disaster

It's hard to believe that 25 years has gone by since the Challenger disaster. I remember exactly where I was as I watched the awfulness unfold. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger is one of the most vivid and haunting experiences of my life. I was so young and I had never conceived of such tragedy before. To this day, I tear up remembering that awful day in Spanish class. I'd watched people die right before my eyes and it wasn't a movie or a television show, it was real.

I walked into class that January 28 talking about the latest music vids with my friend and prepared for vocabulary words and translation. We'd just finished a huge test the day before and had a light load of classwork, so my teacher, Mrs. L, decided we should catch a break by watching the shuttle launch.

Cheers went up. Mostly because we didn't have to conjugate verbs, but also because most of us had never been able to watch a shuttle launch on television before. The launches always happened while we were in class. This time we were actually going to watch the whole thing live. The mood of the room was one of anticipation,joy. Mrs. L was especially excited because Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was going into space. Her pride and excitement rubbed off on us. "How cool is this, kids?," she'd said. "A teacher, like me, riding in the space shuttle. I can't believe it." She was right. It was the coolest thing ever. A real person from our own scope of experience was going to the stars.

I remember sitting at my desk, drumming my pen against my book as the big television was wheeled in by the av kid. He couldn't set that thing up fast enough. After several adjustments, the big screen finally lit up and we were tuned into the special news report. We waited breathlessly for about ten seconds and it became apparent that the news guys were filling in time, so naturally we descended into madness, talking, laughing. Mrs. L hushed us with a sharp word and told us to pay attention.

"Ten, nine, eight..." The countdown rolled on, the engines firing billows of smoke on the screen. I was in awe, the class dead silent. I watched that enormous rocket booster lift off, carrying the shuttle upward. It was so beautiful and amazing, going high and higher into that bright blue sky.

A huge orange fireball burst like someone had thrown paint on the screen. Everyone gasped, wondering what had just happened. I was frozen, staring as debris started falling away like a macabre fireworks show. Mrs. L started crying and so did some of the girls next to me. The newscaster kept asking for confirmation, trying frantically to find out what had happened.

"Did the astronauts just die?" someone asked, I think it was this kid Todd, but I can't be sure. Mrs. L snapped out of her stupor and turned to us. "Oh my God," she said. The math teacher, Ms. Madonich, walked in tears on her face. The TV continued to blare and I tried to hear what the reporters were saying, but by this time every one was talking.

Class dismissed shortly after and I left sad and in shock. I don't remember much of the rest of the day, except walking home and not really feeling the cold. I had my coat on, but hadn't zipped it. Never felt the wind, nor the blowing snow.

The Challenger disaster remains one of the most shocking moments of my life. I have forgotten a lot of things over the years, but my memories of that moment are as vivid as hi def television in my mind's eye. I have unfortunately, witnessed many more disasters unfold courtesy of the television and the internet, but this one, like Sept 11, remains so clear because it scarred my spirit.


  1. I can't remember my reaction to the Challenger disaster because I was only in second grade at the time. That said, it was a horrible tragedy that shook the nation. Somehow, though, the human spirit perseveres in spite of it all, as we've proven by heading back into space on subsequent missions.

  2. @Jeffrey Beesler I remember the first mission back, too. How we all cheered and your are so right, the human spirit is wonderfully resilient.

  3. So sad...this was to you what JFK's assassination was to me and 9/11 to my children. As a parent, you want to shield your children, but unfortunately, you can't always do that. You wrote a beautiful tribute to the event.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  4. @Nancy Thank you for your words. I've always carried this event with me and I am eternally grateful to my parents who helped me deal with this tragedy.

  5. a very sad and disturbing story!

  6. I remember watching it on TV and being horrified. So sad.

  7. I worked for a progressive-minded fellow at the time. We gathered around the television in the conference room to watch the launch, and what followed. Looking back, I can still get angry that mission success was placed above the safety of the crew.

  8. Hi Melissa - I remember that day, too. Such a devastating experience. Sad. Heartbreaking.

  9. A tragic and gut-wrenching moment in our history. I wasn't even a year old, but I learned of the devastation of this moment from other people's stories. I can attest to N.R. Williams comments above. My recollection of 9/11 is hauntingly vivid, probably to the same extent, as your sad reminiscence of the Challenger disaster.


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