Do you remember where you were when the space shuttle Challenger disintegrated 73 seconds after being launched for its tenth mission?
It was January 1986. I was in the sixth grade. Unlike the schools today, we didn’t have a television monitor or a computer in each classroom. Lunch period that day was a special treat because the teachers brought a television into the classroom so that we could watch the space shuttle Challenger lift off. My Mom was one of the teachers.
The engines fired up, the count down began, and then we all watched as Challenger lifted off for its tenth mission. We’d spent the week learning about the astronauts on board. The room was silent as all eyes were trained on the small TV monitor and the image of the Challenger rising higher and higher into the brightening sky. The lift off and ascent appeared to be slow from a distance, the space shuttle rising through the clouds like a helium balloon. And then the Challenger exploded into a ball of fire. The teachers and every student in the classroom continued to watch the TV, wondering what their eyes had just witnessed. Was that supposed to happen? Was that part of the lift off process?
It soon became obvious that something had gone terribly wrong. The coverage was cut short. The teachers hurried us out of the classroom to eat our lunch outside. My Mom told me to wait in the hall until she could find out what was going on. We were shuffled about as though the day were moving on, but we knew that something had happened to the Challenger. We just didn’t fully understand.
After lunch, the teachers explained to us that the space shuttle Challenger had disintegrated during its launch and all astronauts on board were dead. The classroom was silent. Distant disaster didn’t make any sense to a classroom full of sixth graders. The space shuttle couldn’t just blow up, could it? My Mom did her best to answer my questions on the way home that day. At the time, she must have been as stunned by the event as I was.
Later that year, as part of a project for my History class, I decided to learn more about the sole African-American physicist on board the Challenger that fateful day. His name was Ron McNair. He was a native of Lake City, South Carolina, my home state. I spent a month traveling with my Mom to Lake City to document the places where Ron McNair grew up. He had been an inspiration to so many.
Now, more than twenty years later, I look back at the Challenger disaster as my first experience of a national tragedy. In fact, it wasn’t until the terrorist attacks on 9/11 that I felt the same sense of dread that I had felt as a sixth grader watching the Challenger disaster. Perhaps my experience of the Challenger disaster helped in a small way to prepare me for the emotions and questions brought on by 9/11.