My First Witness to Tragedy
January 28th marks the anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I was 11-years-old at the time and in the fifth grade. I was also in the Young Astronauts Program—a program for school kids to get interested in science and mathematics. It was also my first experience with STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yes, it’s that old.
I’m not sure where my interest in the space program grew from. I wasn’t particularly good in math or science. My engineering skills were limited to building Lego cities. Maybe it had something to do with exploring or being in Girl Scouts. I don’t know. It could have just been a sign of the times—the space shuttle program was only a few years old. And much like the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions of the 50s and 60s, the shuttle launches spawned a new generation of space pioneers in the 80s.
And it was one that included women.
The Challenger launch was an exciting because of NASA’s Teacher in Space Program. So, as you can imagine, this launch was going to be watched by tens of thousands of school kids all around the world. And in the U.S., it would be watched by kids in the classroom.
I was one of them.
I was in my fifth-grade morning class—social studies, math and science. Almost kind of fitting when you think about it.
When it was learned the shuttle would launch, I and others in my class who were in the YAP went to another classroom to watch the launch.
Peanut butter and jelly.
It’s not just a lunchtime staple of millions of American school kids. I connect it specifically to the Challenger launch. It’s what I had for lunch. We seem to remember odd things when we see a national tragedy unfold before our eyes. The “where were you when” feeling that exists in events like this.
Sitting at a desk in the of Mrs. Ellison’s classroom corner classroom, I was zoned in on the launch. My seat was in the front near the door. The TV was on the opposite end, in the corner. The excitement was thick. We were eager learners and in a few days, we’d be watching and participating in lessons taught front space by an actual teacher.
Her name: Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire.
3…2…1…lift-off. It’s finally happening. Exciting.
Seconds later—something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong.
I’ve seen several launches of the space shuttle. I knew something wasn’t right. That’s not supposed to happen. There’s not supposed to be that much smoke—the boosters aren’t supposed to go like that.
Nobody knew what happened. We all looked around and wondered—is something wrong?
Something clearly was—moments later, the TV went off. And we went back to our respective classrooms.
My mom wasn’t working at the point. When I got home, I learned. The shuttle—it was gone. The astronauts, gone. Sadness.
But what happened?
Early on, it was clear that something had failed on the shuttle. Was it the external fuel tank? The freezing cold the night before? The solid rocket boosters? Investigation upon investigation would explain what happened.
It would be a few years before NASA would launch again.
Then, in 2003—tragedy again with Columbia. I was in the room I’m in right now. I heard my mom from the living room—not again.
The months of January and February are times of sorrow for NASA. On January 27, 1967—the Apollo 1 fire during a test on the launch pad. February 1, 2003—Space Shuttle Columbia would break apart upon re-entry over the Southwest United States.
The shuttle program would be phased out in 2011. The remaining shuttles now a permanent fixture in museums in all corners of the U.S.
Now, NASA is looking to the future of space flight travel with a plan to land on Mars.
And 2018 is set to be a pivotal time for NASA.
There are a series of tests planned for its next launch system. It will hopefully lead to November 2018 with a manned crew test flight. Exciting times to be sure.
But there’s more. Thirty-two years after the Challenger tragedy, McAuliffe’s lessons will finally be taught from the International Space Station. Some of the lessons will be the exact ones she planned to teach while others will be adjusted to fit what is available on the ISS.
I plan to tune in. Why? I want to see what I would have learned 32 years ago.