Remembering The Challenger

I know that we generally keep things fairly light around here, but I figured that if ever there was a reason to make an exception, this would be it.

We Culture Brats are all children of the '80s, and we write about moments that define that decade. Most of our memories are good ones but, as is often the case, there are moments in history that make an impact on history in ways that songs, movies, television, and personalities never could. And many of those moments in history are tragic ones.

The morning of a Tuesday January 28th, 1986 was just another work day for me. I was in college at the time, but I also worked a full-time job at a retail store that sold, among other things, computers, VCRs, and TVs. I was in the computer department when my manager paged me over the intercom:

"Dave Ellis to the VCR aisle, IMMEDIATELY!"

I had no idea why he sounded so urgent.

When I got to the VCR department, all of the TVs were showing the space shuttle Challenger leaving the launch pad. I have always been a space nut, and I knew that there was a shuttle launch that morning but, due to the short attention span with which the general public is cursed, the launch wasn't being carried on any of the major networks. God forbid that people should miss The Price Is Right just to see seven people climb into a spaceship and get hurled into orbit. Again. So, I guess I should have known something was up. We didn't have cable at the store, so this was one of the major networks.

As I listened to the commentary, I realized something had gone wrong. Then the tragic moment replayed. As the voice of mission control calmly read off the telemetry, the Challenger disappeared in a ball of fire and smoke. When I saw that, I didn't need the newscaster to tell me what had happened. The Challenger and her crew were gone.

Over the days and weeks that followed, I learned much about the seven people we lost that day. Commander Dick Scobee; pilot Mike Smith; engineers Ellison Onizuka, Judy Resnik, and Greg Jarvis; and physicist Ronald McNair were veterans of previous shuttle missions. Anyone who knows anything about the space program realizes that every astronaut is well aware of the dangers that might await them--in spite of the fact that the United States had been extremely fortunate, losing only three people in the program up to that point. (The astronauts of Apollo 1, who died in a fire during a systems test on the launch pad almost 19 years to the day earlier on January 27, 1967.)

But what brought the tragedy home to most people was the seventh member of the crew, Christa McAuliffe--a 37-year-old woman from Concord, New Hampshire who was chosen from a pool of over 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher in space. McAuliffe wasn't a trained pilot or a research scientist who had dedicated her life to a career in space. She was one of us. And that somehow made it more real.

For those of us growing up in the '80s, too young to remember Apollo 1 and not yet born when JFK was assassinated, this was our first brush with a sudden national tragedy. Our time when the devil-may-care rush and bustle of everyday life came to an abrupt halt and reality slapped us in the face. Really, really hard. There have been other tragedies that we've all had to face since--but it was Challenger that first taught our generation that, although life is usually pretty okay, that sometimes it can be unspeakably harsh.

As we pass the 25th anniversary of the loss of the Challenger and her crew, I think it's important to take a moment to look back and celebrate the pioneering spirit that prompted these people to look to the stars. In his address to the country on that tragic night, President Reagan put it best:

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

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