Remembering the Challenger

[Originally published on January 28, 2016.]

On January 28, 1986, I was sitting in Mrs. Raedeke’s third grade class at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. I was eight years old. Back then, as now, I was big into the space program and was infatuated with the Space Shuttle. My favorite shuttle was the Columbia, so while I was excited to watch the Shuttle Challenger take-off that was scheduled that day, I wasn’t as excited as I would have been if it were Columbia.

That morning, before lunch time, we were getting a treat – we were going to watch the space shuttle launch. Launches by that time had become relatively commonplace, but they were still televised on broadcast TV. This launch was special, though, because of the Teacher in Space program, where a regular person like Christa McAuliffe – not an astronaut – was going to get to go up for the first time.

We didn’t have a big TV in the classroom – just the small 15 inch color television that was attached to our TRS-80 Color Computer (the famed CoCo). Mrs. Raedeke had turned the computer part off and was using it like a regular TV, tuning in to channel 2, the NBC affiliate in Baltimore. The screen wasn’t that great, but we could watch the launch. The small class of about 14 of us huddled around the computer cart as we listened to the commentary.

The announcer counted down the familiar three-two-one, and we heard the traditional lift-off monologue. As Challenger streaked skyward, everything looked normal. And then it wasn’t. The screen flashed, and flickered, and we saw the weird smoke cloud with the two solid rocket boosters flying in the wrong direction. Not all of us kids seemed to understand what had happened, but I knew something was wrong – I’d seen a lot of shuttle launches and this wasn’t supposed to happen. Mrs. Raedeke rushed to the television and turned it off, while telling the class to go back to our seats. Those who didn’t realize something was wrong from the scenes on TV could tell by her reaction. Covering her face with her hands, she rushed out of the classroom and headed towards the office.

When she came back in a few moments later, it was clear that she had been crying. She had composed herself, and led us off to the gymnasium, which doubled as our cafeteria, for lunch. The school was small – each grade was its own classroom, from kindergarten to sixth grade, and we all ate lunch together. We filed into our seats at the lunch tables. Our class was strangely quiet, because we knew something had happened. The other classes apparently hadn’t watched the live feed of the launch, so they didn’t seem to know.

Our Principal, Mr. Raedeke (my teacher’s husband – their son, Jonathan, was in my class), asked for quiet and then announced to the school that the Shuttle Challenger had been lost in an accident. I remember an audible gasp going up. He asked us all to join him in a prayer for the astronauts and their families and we did.

This was one of the first times as a child that I was old enough to understand what was happening when confronted with a national tragedy. That night before dinner, I watched, with my parents, President Reagan’s address to the nation on the tragedy. It was this address, more than anything else that happened while he was President, that cemented in my mind what a president should be, and how he should sound – to this day hearing a name other than “Reagan” after “President” sounds odd to me. Reagan’s speech had a profound impact on me, as much as the Challenger disaster itself. All of these details remain burned into my brain when almost everything else about this period in my childhood remains a blur. Don’t ask me who my kindergarten or second grade teachers were, don’t ask me to name every kid in my class (I remember a handful, but not all), but I can tell you everything about that 3rd grade classroom, down to the pictures of George Washington and Lincoln on the walls. I know my experience mirrors that of many my age.

Coming at such a formative time for my generation, Challenger represented the first real “do you remember where you were” moment for Generation X. It would be the last one of those moments really until 9/11.

Reagan’s speech that night ranks, in my opinion, up there with the Gettysburg Address, FDR’s and JFK’s inaugural addresses as one of the best examples of presidential speechmaking at its most eloquent and lasting. His reminder that we are pioneers, his recognition that the whole nation mourned while speaking directly to the families, and his final sentence quoting John Magee’s poem High Flight, all worked perfectly to capture that moment in America’s national life. Peggy Noonan deserves a Presidential Medal of Freedom for that speech alone.

It’s been 30 years since Challenger exploded, and today we find a space program that is a shadow of its former self. The Space Shuttle is now a museum piece (and if you haven’t visited the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Fairfax County, I strongly suggest you do so – Discovery is on display and it’s pretty awesome), and we don’t have a dedicated orbiter anymore. While we’ve made some advances, like the International Space Station, we seem to have abandoned our grandiose plans for space exploration, content to do what we can from below rather than above. Challenger hasn’t been our only shuttle disaster, either, with my beloved Columbia being destroyed on reentry on February 1, 2003.

The 30th anniversary of Challenger gives us an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we want to go when it comes to American manned space exploration. I think it’s time for the next president to set a lofty goal – something hard, not easy, as JFK noted – and direct the country towards that goal. Whether it’s a return to the moon, a mission to mars, or something similar, it’s time for America to truly honor the memory of those we lost on January 28, 1986 by advancing the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That cause, man’s knowledge of our universe, is a noble one that transcends national partisanship. It represents the best of what we, as Americans, have to offer and I hope it becomes a priority.

In a world where it is so easy for us to spend all our time gazing down at our navels, it’s time we go back to gazing up at the stars.

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