25 years ago today the US Space Program and the people of the United States suffered a major loss when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up 73 seconds after lift-off. 25 years later I still recall with vivid detail watching the launch from the living room couch. I was ten and home sick from school. I cannot remember if I was sick or “sick;” it is perfectly conceivable that I played sick to stay home and watch the launch. This is something my mother would have let me play sick for because I was obsessed with the Space Program, like so many ten year olds. But unlike many ten year olds I was lucky enough to witness the very first Space Shuttle, Columbia, launch on April 12, 1981 when vacationing with my family in Florida. I remembering the earth literally shaking as the shuttle lifted from the ground and rose to the heavens above. I was not even six yet, but remember distinctively thinking to myself “when I grow up, I want to be an astronaut."
Prior to 9/11, “Where were you when the Space Shuttle Challenger Exploded” was like the “Where were you when JFK was shot” for late Gen-Xers. My sisters, who were also sick, and I were eating chicken noodle soup nestled behind our TV trays and glued to the Price Is Right. Our mother turned the TV to CNN right after the first showcase showdown and the Space Shuttle in all its amazing aerodynamic glory sat upon the launch pad ready for liftoff. In unison the three of us counted down with mission control from 10, 9, 8, 7, 6… the rockets firing and the amazing power of lifting something so large off the ground and into the sky. The sky was clear and with each second the Shuttle appeared whiter and whiter against the sky as it ascended into the deeper, darker blue of the atmosphere.
For someone who had witnessed many of the launches, both in person and on TV, I knew every stage of the process; what happened with each throttle, and when the booster rockets departed ways from the aircraft. I was baffled when the ball of fire engulfed the shuttle and mission control was still talking as if everything was okay. It was so obviously not okay. The CNN commentator when silent, everything was so very quiet and eerie and it seemed like forever before the words I will always remember were broadcast from mission control. “Obviously a major malfunction.” I started to cry, as so many people did. We sat glued to the tv for hours, I remember when the news focused on parachuters descending from the sky, hoping it was possible that crew members ejected themselves from the fiery wreck and then saying it was just a rescuer. After a while hope was gone and we were faced with the reality that 7 Americans gave their lives during the mission.
The Challenger explosion had a major impact on the trajectory of my life. Up until that point, I wanted to study science, become an Astronaut, and fly to space. The reality of the situation hit me like a ton of bricks, my innocence lost. This was no longer a cool job that included space walks, zero-gravity, and funky space suits. This was a dangerous job where people died. It scared me, and it was the first time I ever really thought of and faced my own mortality. Before 11:38 EDT on January 26, 1986 I wanted to be an Astronaut. After that time I didn’t and honestly, still don’t truly know what I want to be when I grow up because no job seems as cool and amazing. I still have a photo of the Challenger crew and sometimes wonder what life would have been like had I not been scared away from my childhood dream job.
I will always remember the exact date of the Challenger disaster not only because it changed my life and desired career path, but because January 28th is my Grandmother’s birthday. Ironically, I will always remember where I was when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry to earth. February 1, 2003 was one of the more difficult days of my life. My Grandmother passed away on January 29th, mere hours after her 91st birthday. A few days later we were driving from her funeral church service to the cemetery to lay her to rest when the news hit the radio of the Columbia disaster. Both these events remind me of my old dream to be an Astronaut, and of my beloved Grandmother. I like to believe Grandma and these American heroes are now amongst the stars.