Thirty years ago today I was home sick from elementary school. I remember waking up feeling crappy again after having been home the day before. But I awoke feeling especially crappy not just because of the fever and flulike symptoms but because I figured it meant I would likely miss the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
It was a big deal because every shuttle mission back then was a big deal. The AV cart was already set up first thing in the morning when we arrived at class. Sometime a bit before the launch sequence was initiated there would was a school-wide announcement over the loudspeaker. Classes would cease as we normally knew them and all eyes would be glued to the small television to watch the grainy footage of the launch. It would be worked into the day and even the week’s lessons in some way or another.
The STS (Space Transportation System) program was only about five years old at the time and the reusable low Earth orbital manned spacecraft represented a pretty revolutionary concept so it garnered national attention. Thus, each mission was treated like an event itself even apart from what we experienced in school.
For me, space was intriguing. Exciting. Invigorating.
I guess it probably began being of interest because of science fiction. My early experience with movies and television shows, video games and books. The idea of the unknown, the unexplored, transported me to the far reaches of my own mind. It was full of wonder and awe and held a young mind captive when it would normally be wandering aimlessly.
Later, I became interested in science in-and-of itself. No particular aspect of science per se, just the idea of it. I liked everything. So I spent time with everything from a microscope to a mini chem lab, from physics and engineering sets, and of course binoculars and a low powered telescope. I was subscribed to youth zines about everything from biology (particularly marine) to space.
So, by the time mission STS-51-L by OV-099 aka the Shuttle Challenger occurred I was already a learned pupil of NASA history and looking forward to the next discoveries with a childhood wonder.
I followed every mission closely back then. Those we didn’t watch on TV at school I tried to follow on the radio and through the newspaper in real time and read up on as soon as they made the monthly magazine features. I knew so many of the regular astronauts stories and about the types of experiments they were running. It was all so fascinating.
The idea of not watching the launch with my fellow classmates, particularly those who I indulged the knowledge of my interest in space with, was pretty disheartening.
My mother was pretty awesome. She brought up the small TV we had in the house to my room and set it up so I could watch the launch that morning. I can’t remember for sure but I feel like she brought me soup and crackers. Pillows propped me up against the bookshelf that made the headboard of my bed.
There isn’t a lot of detail in my memory to what came next. All I remember was following the thick white trail of exhaust as it streaked across the screen for about a minute and then a pumpkin-like cloud appeared. It was ominous. I knew immediately something wasn’t right. The cloud spewed to serpentine trails of what looked like more exhaust. They spiraled and the as they did the pumpkin spat streamers. I can’t remember anything about the soundtrack apart from a horrible rumble in the background and the horrified tone of the narration.
When I watch the footage now as an adult it looks different than the images etched in my memory. I guess that’s why eye-witness accounts aren’t all that accurate. The ball of smoke was bigger, the streamers were more dramatic, the two SRBs looked more like the aorta of a heart in how they burst from the top.
But, the drama in my chest is the same every time.
I’m older now, and I just get misty and then come back to reality. But back then, it was the comfort of my mother that calmed the excited me down. I can’t quite remember where she was and in the last conversation many years ago about it she didn’t seem to have a great recollection either. What both of us do remember was sitting on my childhood bed together in awe of the situation unfolding on the screen in front of us as the news tried to recount what happened.
To this day, I’m still not sure I have a great understanding of what occurred. I know the science behind the o-rings failing – that made sense back then. But rather the impact it had on the world. It definitely had an impact on my understanding of the limits of mankind and the complexities of advancement. It definitely had an impact on the American psyche too.
Interestingly enough, I was a Shuttle Columbia kid back then. It was the original and held this special place in helping create my interest in the program. While Enterprise was always the proof-of-concept Columbia was “the” shuttle. The introduction of Challenger was an afront to that. It is weird as an adult to thing about ‘taking sides’ over something as mechanical as space shuttles but it is one of the memories I harbor from the time.
For as broken up as I was at the Challenger’s disaster, hating that people died, being discouraged it would set the program back, and feeling frustrated with the fact that something like that could even occur in the first place I was secretly happy that it might mean Columbia would see increased service.
It didn’t. Atlantis and Discovery both already had missions under their belts before STS-51-L. Discovery as the most recent orbiter relaunched as the follow up to the disaster and come home successfully in Sept 1998. Atlantis subsequently would release Magellan with Discovery going up again for the launch of Hubble. STS-49 introduced us to Endeavour.
But, I digress. The Challenger shuttle disaster happened at a time when non-whites where finally making it into space (Columbia’s mission immediately preceding had the first African American shuttle pilot and first Lat-Am born crew member), The Voyager 2 probe was just giving humans their first look at Uranus, Halley’s Comet reaches its perihelion during its second visit to the solar system in the 20th century (and is visited by the Suisei probe) … All of this was, unfortunately historically overwritten by the Apocalyptic reality of a mishandled safety test at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukrainian SSR, CCCP.
I remember it because it was probably the first major tragedy that occurred in my lifetime or at least the first I would remember of the many that would come next. It shook the foundations of my belief. See, in SciFi to that point almost no one died, and when they had, like Spock or Obi Won, they were resurrected. Real life with the Challenger, that wasn’t the case. Space was deafening and deadly and it demanded a new kind of respect. One which as an elementary school kid was previously unknown to me. It helped me for the first time put the death of my grandfather a few years earlier into a perspective my young mind then couldn’t and gave me greater perspective of where I was yet to go emotionally.
To this day, looking back, Challenger posed a challenge greater than the sum of the individual parts of the event and provided me with a growing experince from my childhood bed on a sick day I could have never otherwise expected or hoped to experience. For me, it really did prove good things can come of tragedy.