Wednesday, January 28, 2009

23 Years Ago Today...

Twenty three years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded some 73 seconds after launch. Until September 11th, 2001, it was the defining moment of my life; the one "what were you doing when" event that I thought would define my generation. Ronald Reagan was president, we were at war with the Soviet Union in a fierce battle of ideologies, and our scientific prowess was one of the many advantages we enjoyed over the Soviets. Sure, they may have been first to put a man into space, but we were the first to make space flight a routine occurrence.

Until the Challenger broke apart a little over a minute after takeoff.

Seven astronauts lost their lives that day:

STS-51-L crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. (from Wikipedia entry)

Rest in peace, STS-51-L crew. Your place in history is assured; your spot in my memory is eternal.

I was in Mr. Boyle's Calculus class when Eric Marquese came in with the news of the disaster. Eric was the class clown, a cut-up most famous for calling our hard-ass principal on the phone as "Trooper Marquese" and trying to get the school closed down during a snowstorm. Naturally we kept waiting for the punchline, thinking for certain this was a crude joke being played on us.

Until Mr. Boyle came into the room, ashen-faced, and confirmed Eric's story.

Since I was in the TV Production Club (yes, I was a geek, I freely admit it - I was also on the Chess Team and in the Sci-Fi Club, too), I had access to the TV studio where small TV monitors were kept. I remember walking out of class, even though it was clearly against the rules, and walking to the studio. Several others in the club had the same idea, and we hooked up a TV in the studio and watched the news.

I saw the Challenger break apart. Again and again and again.

And Mr. Boyle was standing over my shoulder, watching the news, trying stoicly to maintain his composure. Nothing was said about the breach of my leaving class; in fact, school was canceled after a short assembly on the tragedy. Our parents came to get us, all looking as ashen-faced as my teacher. Most of our parents remembered all too vividly the assassination of JFK, and were now re-living many of those same fears.

It was a black day in history, eclipsed later only by monumental human evil.

That is all.

(This trip down Amnesia Lane provided by this entry at Tam's...)


libertyman said...

There was a editorial cartoon done at the time showing the astronauts joining Columbus, Lewis and Clark and other explorers in heaven. Courageous people, all.

Old NFO said...

My crew was the SAR ready in Jacksonville, I saw the shuttle explode from my driveway, and we were orbiting the debris field an hour and 30 minutes later. We searched for three days, 24 hours a day, hoping and praying, but to no avail. God Bless those folks.

zeeke42 said...

I was only 3.5 years old, so I don't remember the Challenger disaster. It did get me thinking about generation defining moments. See my post here.

Jay G said...

Thank you for making me feel OLD, zeeke42...


Larry said...

I was checking out of my A school at NAS Memphis.
Interesting side note, when I went through my aircraft mishap investigation class almost 12 years later the Challenger mishap was one of the ones we studied.

chris said...

As I wrote here

I was in the lunchroom at Deerwood elementary school in East Orlando approximately 45 miles from the launch complex. Within seconds of the breakup, myself along with hundreds of other students were outside watching the debris falling to earth.

I can still remember crying and not knowing why... I still have an autographed 45 record of a song recorded the week of the disaster with a song named "Challenger."

Years later, I was on the playground at Union Park Elementary in Orlando, also about 40 miles from the launch complex, when the space shuttle missions resumed. I can still remember other children screaming "Blow up! Blow up!" and thinking how horrible and mean those kids were.

Several years later, I was able to visit Arlington National Cemetery and see the graves of the astronauts. Only the grave of Kennedy had more solemn meaning for me.

To this day, I can still hear the voice of Michael Smith saying "Uh oh"... And I remember the numerous local news stories of people finding debris washing up on Cocoa Beach.

Like you, I did not experience anything this monumentally life changing until 9/11/01... A year and a half later, I was again ripped apart when the Columbia disintegrated on reentry. The helplessness of being a bystander to tragic history is only drowned out when you realize that the event you are watching was not just an accident but was deliberate... Perhaps that is why Challenger and Columbia make me sad and 9/11 makes me seethe in anger.

The most emotional thing about the whole Challenger incident was the words of Reagan that night... It brings tears to my eyes every time:

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God."