I wrote the following essay in March 1993, as a writing exercise for my freshman English class in college. I share it not because it’s well-written, but because it accurately expresses my personal experiences on January 28, 1986–the day we lost the Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew (STS-51L). That evening, President Ronald Reagan canceled his State of the Union Address and instead addressed the nation on the Challenger disaster.
I sat quietly in my sixth grade social studies class, staring at the chalkboard and still half asleep. I glanced around the room and noticed that most of my friends were finishing their homework and comparing answers as the announcements began. “We’d like to thank our faculty and staff for another successful PTA meeting last night. On a final note, we are deeply saddened to announce that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded during lift‑off this morning … further details will be aired over the P.A. as we receive them.” I sat in shock and shifted in my seat. I didn’t cry, or laugh, or think; I just sat there. My teacher walked out of the room and I could hear her talking in a whisper to another teacher across the hall. Our classroom was silent, so quiet that one might have thought it was deserted.
The bell rang and ushered us to our next class. As I walked through the corridor I heard another student laughing as he spoke, “Well, at least that’s one less teacher we have to put up with. Do you know what NASA stands for….It stands for ‘Need Another Seven Astronauts.'” I was already numb at that point and I kept on walking, but his hateful words echoed in my head for the entire day. I went through the rest of my classes in a stupor, waiting for the final bell that would allow me to rush home and find out what had really happened. Perhaps, I thought, I was making it out to be much worse than it really was. Perhaps the astronauts had escaped without harm. I knew about the safety procedures and the equipment, and the Shuttle itself. After all, I wanted to become an astronaut and see our world from their eyes. This mission was something all the more special to me because there was a teacher on‑board–someone who could put space travel into a child’s perspective and share her experiences with us. She had a family and children, and taught in a school not unlike my own. Her name was Christa McAuliffe, and I honestly loved her for what she was doing.
As I walked into my house my mother greeted me with open arms. I paused for a moment and looked at her. I gathered the courage to ask if she had heard about the Shuttle and she nodded. I knew it wasn’t a mistake now; this was real. Without a sound, she pointed towards the living room television. I took a deep breath and entered the room, my eyes focusing on the fuzzy images on the set. I stood in front of the screen and waited as a news report began to replay the lift‑off.
Just as in so many times past, I chimed in as the countdown neared its final seconds. I watched as the majestic bird freed itself from its earthly bonds and soared into the air, trailing huge plumes of billowing white steam and smoke. All seemed normal as I turned towards my mother, who was now standing behind me with her hand gently resting on my shoulder. I listened for the familiar dialogue between the Shuttle crew and Mission Control as they synchronized their maneuvers and ensured that necessary adjustments were made. I smiled at the beautiful sight of the orbiter rocketing into the sky, carrying my heroes far into the heavens where I wished to go someday.
“Roger, go at throttle up,” Commander Dick Scobee said aboard Challenger. I watched in disbelief as a fiery plume engulfed the Shuttle and its crew and sent pieces of my white bird splintering through the sky. Mingled with the splinters of the spacecraft my hopes also seemed to shatter. I grabbed my mother’s hand tightly and wept. It took me years to accept what had happened, just as it took our nation years to recover from such a tragic loss. I sincerely hope they will never be forgotten.