This was one of the first things I wrote about in grad school almost seven years ago. It was in response to a prompt about a moment in history that deeply affected me. This is mine. I’ve edited it quite a bit.
Before the Challenger disaster, I had moved to Alabama with my family on December 30, 1985. I had just had my eighth birthday five days before.
We were now in a bigger house with a large yard in a mostly Black middle-class neighborhood that had gone through some white flight. My mom said that when we arrived that night, my younger brother and I ran around the basement in excitement. It would seem just by that anecdote, I was happy for the move.
But starting school the following month was a rough time for me.
Although I loved school back then and considered it my happy place, I didn’t have the most uplifting of starts this time around. I had spent the first day of school crying for no reason, something even at age eight I don’t remember being wont to do.
Ms. Stricklin, my second grade teacher, had her arm around my chair in the back of the classroom as she quizzed me on my timetables. We were sitting by a window, off to the side of the classroom.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” I wiped my hands on my face as my trembling lips tried to hold back my whimpering. I remember feeling strange that I didn’t know why I was crying. All I knew was that I didn’t want to be there at school that day.
Apparently, this was still a time where I cried openly. I was still feeling traumatized from the move.
What’s strange about this time of my life is that I only remember the first day of school in Alabama and January 28th. I can vaguely remember second grade in Nashville, basically one spelling test where I spelled the word “visit” wrong. And that’s it.
I can’t help but think that the trauma of moving, along with watching the explosion erased any other memories I had of being eight.
On that day, a Tuesday, the skies were leaden and flat with stratus clouds, just like the first day at my new school.
But this time, instead of crying, I was excited.
This morning, we were going to go to the library and watch on the big TV the space shuttle, Challenger, take off from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Our school was courtyard style, so my fellow second graders and I all walked, jumped, hopped, skipped, and danced outside, single file, to the library on the other side of the school. Other classes sat in there with us – some of us seated at tables, some of us on the floor.
We were all so excited, watching the astronauts waving to the crowd and entering the shuttle:
Francis R. Scobee – Mission Commander
Michael J. Smith – Pilot
Ellison S. Onizuka – Mission Specialist 1
Judith A. Resnik – Mission Specialist 2
Ronald E. McNair – Mission Specialist 3
Christa McAuliffe – Payload Specialist 1
Gregory B. Jarvis – Payload Specialist 2
It makes me wonder how many millions more kids were watching in their libraries and classroom. One New York Times poll found that around half of nine to thirteen year olds watched the shuttle launch.
This was a special event for children because a New Hampshire school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, only six months to the day younger than my mom, was one of the seven astronauts. NASA TV was made available to schools to watch the launch. So more children watched the launch than adults, because CNN was the only one broadcasting the launch live.
Although the skies looked bright grey in Alabama, the skies were spectacularly clear and cerulean at Cape Canaveral. In Alabama, we had had a low of 12 degrees Fahrenheit the night before, and Cape Canaveral had a low of 18 degrees – both unusually low temperatures for the South.
If it even approaches freezing in Florida, meteorologists will make a big deal because of the citrus crops which can be damaged by freezing temps. And because most people don’t have heavy coats here, these days meteorologists will even tell you how to dress yourself and your kids. The densest outwear you’ll see anyone wear around here is a big sweatshirt.
So for the shuttle launch, I was sitting on brown carpeted floor, watching with everyone, the countdown to liftoff. The library erupted in cheers as Challenger’s thrusters roar to life and the shuttle lifts off, with the deep blue Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop. We were chattering with each other, clapping and smiling, but our eyes were glued on the TV.
Then, as the Challenger is rising into the sky, a minute later, I see that flash of orange under the external tank, caused by strong wind shears, coming from the right solid rocket booster. Those O-rings that I would hear so much afterward had been replaced by a temporary oxide seal, which the wind shear had shattered, causing flames to rush through the joint. Had it held together, the Challenger seven would have made it safely up to space.
That image of the orange flame and the consequent explosion was burned into my memory. Then came what I call the Mickey Mouse explosion, of the shuttle and fuel tank, with the two solid rocket boosters flying off as the ears. This is where my memory tape starts to slow down.
I looked at the TV and I ask Ms. Stricklin, “They made it out, right?”, over and over I’m asking – to her and to myself. I’m hoping that they safely plop in the ocean and we get to see Christa McAuliffe again.
I don’t remember what she said, if anything. I only remember her standing by the TV, looking.
As I’m watching the explosion, McAuliffe’s parents, her students, and the other families of the astronauts are starting to discover what happen. Recently, I watched a video of the raw footage of the crowd. You can see the crowd slowly learning of the astronauts’ fates.
The camera focuses on McAuliffe’s parents and I can’t tell if they know yet or not. Some people were crying. People started leave the stands, with stunned looks on their faces.
We must’ve stayed there in the library for a while, hushed, whispering, waiting – or maybe I’m still waiting to see that they are OK.
Part of me never left the library. I’m still there, waiting.
I read later that some of the astronauts were able to survive the initial explosion, and I saw a picture of the crew cabin in one of the rays of smoke and fire. But they were hurtling towards the ocean at such a speed, at approximately 207 mph.
With over 200 g forces as they are decelerating, they will not survive.
And maybe eight-year-old me knew that, deep down, but just couldn’t face the magnitude of loss I had just witnessed.
The NASA lead accident investigator and astronaut Robert Overmyer said, “Scob [Dick Scobee, the shuttle commander] fought for any and every edge to survive. He flew that ship without wings all the way down….they were alive.”
And that may be true. Maybe some of the astronauts were conscious, and maybe some were not. But it was concluded that the explosion itself didn’t cause their deaths.
I could go on and on about the historic speech Reagan gave on the day he was supposed to be giving the State of the Union address; about the intensive, repetitive, possibly traumatizing, media coverage of the Challenger disaster; the many years of covering up about the O-rings in the joints of the solid rocket boosters that lead up to this tragedy; about the engineers’ ignored warnings, about how it was way too cold to fly the shuttle that day; about the many delays of the mission launch; about how, after the disaster, the shuttle program was on hiatus for almost three years; about the Rogers Commission that investigated the disaster, which included astronaut Sally Ride; about the Congressional hearings; about the redesign of the solid rocket boosters, the schools named after the Challenger and Christa McAuliffe, the tributes and memorials…
But all I can think about is Christa. Is it because I love learning so much, that her death—unlike the ones who died upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in the Columbia in 2003, or even her fellow crew members—hurts me so?
My heart and eyes found those buried rivers of saline as I saw the footage again, which had been frozen under time and innocence. Preventable tragedies are never easy for anyone to understand, let alone children.
And she was born in the same year of my mother. Is it like my mother dying?…maybe not my mother, but a mother, or nurturer, of young minds that she helped to shape and mold in her classroom every day.
She was one of us – someone who worked really hard to become an astronaut through the Teachers in Space Project.
And she was so young, at age 37.
It could also be that I tried to stubbornly hold onto some semblance of innocence that day, hurtling into an ocean of denial, until my grown-up self could reckon with the depth of the loss.
We go back to places of injury, seeking healing and understanding. But I’m scared to read anymore analysis or watch anymore footage.
It hurts enough. I know enough.
Christa’s gone. Those seven astronauts are all gone, never to return.
There was no way to escape.
And the year I was born, those O-rings were already fated to be lethal. So much time to prevent this from happening, eight years…
And what of the other people my age now? What do they think and feel? Did they burst into tears? Were they frozen, too, like me? Does it hurt just as bad as it did on that frozen day in January?
We must be carrying this generational psychic wound together. Has it been bound and cleansed—or forgotten?
The American Journal of Psychiatry conducted a study of children who watched the Challenger explosion and concluded that a significant number of children experienced PTSD-like symptoms, even more so for the schoolchildren who watched it live and were on the East Coast compared to children on the West Coast.
Now, I live about an hour’s drive from the Space Coast and the shuttle program ended on August 31, 2011, a year before I moved down here. I have yet to go to Space Coast to see any launches made by SpaceX or any of the heavy-lift launches.
Down here in Florida, there are license plates for the Challenger and Columbia disasters, but even people here have started to forget.
I remember in fifth grade drawing a picture of a shuttle, it may have been Discovery. I believe it was for some contest. When I was drawing it, I don’t recall remembering what happened to the Challenger. I was very excited to draw the space shuttle. So had I already forgotten, too, just three years later?
Not too far me now is a street called Challenger, a road I have driven down many times in grad school. I never made the connection to the shuttle until years later.
When I started writing this, it was 2012. Now it’s 2019, 33 years since the disaster. Today, I watched the videos again, of the launch, the explosion, the shock and grief of the people in the VIP stands. And I got teary.
Today online, there are a lot of remembrance tweets and posts, but I wonder if over time, we’ll all stop remembering what a harrowing day it was for America and many of its children.
After the Columbia disaster in 2003, priorities began to shift to other space programs and eventually, to commercial space flight. But that remains to be fully realized by companies such as SpaceX.
But that doesn’t mean all space exploration has ceased. Even before the shuttle program’s retirement, there have been amazing space explorations occurring. There are currently over 40 space missions going on right now.
But to me, it’s not the same as sending people out into space.
The glory of the space race (which was mainly with Russia) from the 1960s through the 2000s seems to be a gilded age of time.
Although SpaceX has had some successes and innovations with their rockets, to me it doesn’t feel the same as when the space shuttle would be launched – mainly because there were astronauts aboard.
Other countries are also exploring space. For example, this month, China landed a robot on a moon and even had a plant sprout there (but it’s already dead). There’s also a joint mission to Mercury between the EU and Japan.
The wonder of space still continues to inspire and enthrall us.
I never really talked about this much with anyone after the Challenger exploded. I had read a version of this essay at a public reading and afterward, I spoke with classmates around my age talk about it. It was interesting to swap stories of what we could and could not remember. Some people remembered crying. Some people remembered parents coming to pick up their children or school closing earlier that day.
On another level, I can imagine it’s similar for how Millennials feel about 9/11, although the magnitude of terror is larger and yet more targeted.
Watching people die on television, in real time – and later, repeatedly on the news – is something no one should be subjected to, including and especially children. But both Gen X and Millennials have been scarred by tragedy through television.
Knowing how traumatizing it was for me to watch 9/11 events on repeat for days, I wonder how many Gen Xers still have PTSD from the Challenger disaster. I wonder how they’re all doing now. It seems this man was able to remember a lot more than I was, and he was a year behind me in school.
How did we cope with such a brutal loss of innocence?
It’s hard to tell how traumatized I was, but the memory failure seems to be one of the symptoms – and probably, it is a merciful one. I have no idea what kind of fallout happened to me emotionally, or if it affected my grades, or if it affected anything else in my life, like my relationships to my parents or my brother or my friends.
But it’s OK that I don’t remember or recall, although I am curious about how not only I, but the rest of my classmates dealt with that day. Maybe one day 1986 will open back up for me, but for now, it remains closed.
I am grateful for what these seven brave souls did for the space program, for science, and for humankind. But I am still so devastated at the cost.
I’m sure they inspired to take an astrophysics class in college, which was much too hard for me with my depression-addled brain.
But before the class started to dig deep into the very difficult calculations of the distances between planets (which caused me to drop the class), I was able to go on the roof of our classroom building and look through a telescope and see planets like Jupiter. This planet wasn’t just bright stars in the sky. I could see the multi-colored bands of gaseous clouds which swirled on Jupiter.
It’s still one of the best moments of my life.
Eventually, there will be human travel to space again (besides the trips to the International Space Station), and hopefully the management issues which caused the failures with the Challenger and Columbia have been addressed and resolved.
And when that next space mission happens, I wonder if I’ll be able to be excited…or will some dormant fears will be reactivated. I’m not sure.
But I do look forward to when the U.S. – whether it’s through NASA or some commercial entity – is able to try again and is successful.
And I hope that all who have suffered from that day, the families of the astronauts, the schoolchildren of McAuliffe, the schoolchildren and adults who all watched with me – I hope we can all find healing and peace.
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