Thursday, January 28th, 2016

Challenger Disaster: 30 Years Later

My eighth grade language arts teacher required us to keep a journal. If I remember correctly, it was mandatory each Tuesday and Thursday. Her requirements were relaxed. The bare minimum was three-quarters of a page, twice a week. She encouraged my class to write more frequently, even daily if we were inspired. Our content was not critiqued and we could write fiction, non-fiction or stream of consciousness. She just wanted us to develop a habit of transferring our thoughts to paper. It provided an opportunity to document our thoughts, and seeing we received five new vocabulary words each week, it provided a method to exercise our vocabulary skills.

During my free period, I remember grabbing a pen and pulling out my spiral notebook for Mrs. Flott's class. It was a Wednesday, so I didn't need to write anything, but that day was one year since the Challenger disaster. The United States' space program was still grounded. The images were all over the morning news prior to school. The newspapers hanging in the library showed the familiar images of the explosion and rockets veering off in opposite directions.

That journal was lost during some cleaning binge shortly after moving along to high school. I wish I could read the exact words that I wrote that day. I would be interested to see how, being a 13-year-old, I reflected upon that moment. Despite the journal's absence, the explosion and the rest of the day's events remain vivid almost like it was yesterday.

Two day earlier, the Chicago Bears demolished the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX. I was still riding high in the wake of that victory. That was the first time during my life that one of the teams I followed won a title, so I can't say the space program was front and center in my mind. In my bedroom, I had a huge bulletin board on the wall. One of the images that I had pinned to that board was of the Space Shuttle Columbia. In retrospect, I'm not really sure that I knew NASA was sending a teacher into space aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger. None of my teachers applied for the opportunity, at least no teachers that I was aware of. In early grade school we talked about the space program regularly. I even recall watching a shuttle launch in class. Our teacher, Ms. Schulz, wheeled in a set with rabbit ears and we watched Columbia lift off on one of its earliest missions. By the time Challenger launched that day, I guess the program was routine and lacked the mainstream appeal of just a few years earlier. Perhaps I was just an apathetic junior high student.

I was sitting in my seventh grade social studies class at the time. My seat was in the front row all the way on the left side of the class. My class was silent. I don't recall if we were reading or not, but I remember our librarian charging through the unusual two-way swinging door and muttering to herself.

"The space shuttle blew up! The space shuttle blew up!"

One of the girls in the back of my class instantly spoke up. "That's the one with the teacher, isn't it?"

The librarian sprinted into my classroom because, for some reason, the audio-visual equipment was stored there. I'm not sure if the library was being renovated or what the reason was. She grabbed the television and wheeled it back into the library. Our teacher told us to follow her to the library immediately. That's where I spent the rest of the day. We watched endless coverage of the Challenger disaster for the remainder of the day. I'm not sure how many classes were able to fit into the library, but as I recall, the place was packed.

My dad was our school's principal at the time, so he was in the library watching history unfold with me. At dinner that evening, my mom told me that historic moments, oftentimes tragic, seem to happen out of nowhere. She started telling me the story about being a freshman at Illinois State University on her way to history class and learning that President Kennedy was killed in Dallas.

Looking back, that was my where-were-you-when-Kennedy-was-shot? moment. I was young, but until September 11th, that was the most traumatic world event during my lifetime. Just a few years ago, back in 2013, Susan and I traveled to Washington, D.C. to visit my sister. On our way back to the airport, we stopped to see Space Shuttle Discovery on display at the Smithsonian's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

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