If you are a child of the 1980s, today is the anniversary of a unifying event for many of us: Challenger. By the time Challenger launched, shuttle missions were becoming old hat and–only because of the inclusion of teacher Christa McAuliffe with the Teacher in Space Program–the overwhelming majority of the people watching were schoolkids.
It’s been 25 years now. We’re along way away from the rug in kindergarten (or the Florida playground) where we were assembled to watch, but we can still picture the shape of the plume of gas from the deflagration perfectly. We remember the awkwardness of the adults around us trying to figure out how to explain to us what they couldn’t figure out themselves. We may not think about it constantly, but, on a day like today, when it’s mentioned in the news, we find that it’s all right there.
Kristy: I grew up about fifteen minutes from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. We used to watch the launches live–not live on television, live. I remember once when we were there they did a night launch and my family walked down to the beach to watch; it was one of the most beautiful things I’d seen in my whopping five years of life. My sister and I would stay up late the night after a launch, hoping to catch a glimpse of the orbiting shuttle in the night sky. I’m not actually sure now whether what we were seeing was the shuttle or just air planes, but we certainly thought it was the shuttle.
The day of the Challenger launch my kindergarten class went out to the playground to watch. I remember it was cold. Keep in mind that at that point the furthest north I had ever lived was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, so cold was a relative thing. We stood their waiting for the shuttle, not nearly as excited as we should have been. We’d all seen this before and we didn’t really get the whole Christa McAuliffe thing. The shuttle started to rise in the sky and suddenly something exciting did happen. It split in two and for a moment there were two shuttles climbing up in to the sky. Several of us, I don’t know if I was one of them or not, in memory this moment has become completely collective, excitedly called out, “There are two of them!”
Then I turned to look at my teacher. She wasn’t excited. I couldn’t understand the look on her face back then, but looking back I would describe it as horror. All she said was, “Something went wrong.” She said it quietly, but firmly, and they shuffled us all back to the classroom. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be an adult with a room full of wide-eyed children, faced with the task of explaining something so imaginable to them. So my teacher did what I can’t swear I wouldn’t have done and said nothing more on the subject. “Something went wrong.” It actually sums the whole thing up fairly well.
It was only after I got home and told my mother something had gone wrong that I found out about the explosion. I remember my sister, eight years old at the time, insisting that the astronauts weren’t dead. Her teacher had coped with the tragedy by giving her students hope. There was an escape pod. If they’d had enough warning they could have all gotten into it. They might be in the ocean waiting for rescue or they could have been blasted into orbit.
I remember the beach being closed as debris began washing up on shore. I remember the horrific news that one of the astronauts gloves had been found, with the hand still inside. This is one of several places were my memory contradicts history; I have read since then that no pieces of the bodies were ever recovered. Was this a hoax then? I have no idea.
Cammy: Several hundred miles away, I was in my own kindergarten class in Texas. I don’t have the same distinct recall of everything surrounding the moment. I’m pretty sure that my class went next door to the other kindergarten room to watch with them, but maybe they came to us. I remember the shape of the plume and knowing it didn’t look right. I remember the sound of gasping–I suppose from the teachers. Then the TV was turned off. That was it. Honestly, outside of the image of the cloud of gas splitting off into two–which I can see clear as day–the rest is there, but hazier.
What I remember more was going home and Dad explaining things to me. Though I didn’t realize it at time, I was in a very unique position by comparison to most of my other kindergarten peers: my dad was a rocket scientist, for real. Rather, he was an engineer working on the design of solid rocket motors. Though his were far smaller than those on the shuttle, the design essentials are the same. I came home and suggested that the astronauts might still be alive. After all, they had to have parachutes, right? Dad left no room for hope, “No, Cammy,” he said, before taking out a trusty mechanical pencil, a pad of graph paper and his writing board.
With my three year old brother nosing in, Dad and I clustered on the living room floor around the piece of plywood he used as a writing surface when he wanted to flop on the bed or the floor. He proceeded to give me a lesson on speed, propulsion, the operating principles of rocket propulsion and how a solid fuel rocket motor differed from a liquid fuel. I remember how he told me that you couldn’t “turn off” a solid fuel motor. I remember telling him that sounded dumb and maybe the just should have used liquid so they could turn them off. Much later, after the investigation turned up the whole O-ring issue, the board, the paper and the pencil came back out again as he sketched the pieces for me. At some point he tried to correct my use of the term explosion (it was actually a deflagration), but that part didn’t stick until many years later.
I thought this was all perfectly normal. It didn’t occur to me that my experience might differ from anyone else’s–until I was in college and the subject came up. While I had thought Challenger was the point in time when everyone my age learned the basics of rockets, it was, for others, a time when their parents talked to them about accidents and tragedy and how “bad things sometimes happen and we don’t know why.” I’ve always meant to ask Dad why he responded like he did. I don’t know if it was his need to educate and explain and make sure I wasn’t walking around with any misconceptions about physics, or if it was just easier for him to teach his kid something with facts, rules and logic than to try muddling through an explanation of death and God.
So, 80s kids, the comment lines are open, we know you’ve got a variation on this theme….