Friday, January 28, 2011

Where were you 25 years ago? The Challenger Explosion

Our history is full of “where were you when” moments. The longer we live, the more moments we experience. If you talk to your parents, you will hear many of them: Nixon and Watergate, JFK assassination, MLK assassination and John Lennon’s death - just to name a few. Unfortunately, my generation has had its share from OJ Simpson in his white Bronco, people stranded after Hurricane Katrina and of course, no one will forget 9/11.

But today – January 28 – marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. This is another moment that is burned into my generations mind. For this post, we are going to recall where we were when the Challenger exploded.

The Fed

The date was January 28. Admittedly, I wasn’t the greatest student. I thought PE was a core class and was even more devastated when I discovered that recess was no longer an option past elementary school. But for some reason, I was good at science. Even today I am fascinated with astronomy. I was in the 3rd grade. In the weeks leading up to January 28, my science teacher, Mrs. Butler, kept us in the loop with many phases of the Space Shuttle Challenger. I believe she was just as excited as the students were since this would mark the first time a teacher, Christa McAuliffe – a teacher just like Mrs. Butler – was selected to be one of the crew members. A teacher was going into outer space. Mrs. Butler had us watching the specials showing Christa McAuliffe’s training, her classroom and students and her family.  She was all over the television. There was an attempt to separate McAuliffe from the rest of the crew. She was … “regular.” In addition to Christa McAuliffe, I also remember being interested in Ronald McNair. I don’t recall anything about Mr. McNair except for the fact that he was African American. I knew he was the second African American to fly in space.

The day of, Mrs. Butler gathered us all in her classroom. I remember we had to adjust our class schedules for that day since the time of the mission didn’t line up with the time of sciences class. It was basically a free day. The class periods were shorter than normal, and the teachers brought snacks for us to enjoy. At the time of blast off, all the students had gathered their chairs in a cluttered semi-circle around a tube television. I recall the countdown, blast off… and shortly thereafter, the ship spilt into a “Y” shape. At the time, I had no idea what happened. Since this was my first space shuttle launch, I figured this was normal. I believe most of the class and teachers felt that way as well because there was no mad dash to turn the TV off. We all just sat there for – what seemed like forever. Just watching. We didn’t know what was going to happen next, would there be pictures from outer space or something? Nothing came. I don’t remember much after that. For some reason I seem to remember the pieces falling to earth. I do remember the days after. Everyone was trying to figure out what went wrong. I remember at first there was talk about panels freezing, there was a rumor that the passengers survived the explosion by died when they hit the water below – you know, grade school kid logic. Most of all, I remember thinking about Mrs. McAuliffe’s students. What was going through their minds? How did they feel after witnessing the death of their teacher? I felt sad for them. And to this day I can always recall where I was when the Challenger exploded.

The Janitor
I can remember that damn thing like it was yesterday...I was in elementary school watching it live in my classroom on one of those roller-cart TV's as we had done before during past shuttle launches.  Looking back on it, I suppose nobody could have reasonably anticipated that we were about to watching something unsuitable for children.  And then we saw the smoke and the explosion and it split into 2 archs of billowing smoke like two missiles taking off from the same point of origin, and I remember asking my teacher "is it supposed to do that?"  She had no answer b/c she was in shock - so much in fact that she couldn't even turn off the TV.  Another one of the teachers came down and they went out in the hallway and then maybe a few minutes later the Principal came in and turned off the TV and appologized to the class for what he had seen.  It wasn't until he appologized that we realized that something had actually gone wrong.

For some reason I didn't find out about it until after I got home that evening. I think I may have been visiting my grandfather in the hospital. It's kind of hazy now. I definitely didn't watch it in real time. My grandfather passed away just two days later so those events are sort of forever linked in my mind. I do remember watching the explosion over and over and over again and thinking that at least they didn't suffer.

One of my earliest, permanent memories from my time in the Philadelphia public schools was sitting in my first grade class and paying especially close attentions to my teacher as she picked up the ringing classroom phone. I still remember the look of shock on her face as she hung up and the phone and walked to the middle of the classroom. The class, already looking up at her as if suspecting some announcement, waited patiently as she began formulating the words. We learned that day that the space shuttle Challenger, which had recently been launched in to outer space, had exploded killing all of the astronauts aboard. I remember thinking in my young mind, about the same age as my daughter now, that traveling into outer space seemed very risky and that these astronauts must have been extremely brave. I remember admiring that courage and asking myself if was brave enough to do what they had done.
Where were you when the Challenger Exploded?
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