For many us, it became one of "those" moments. You know what I mean, right? One of those moments that will stop you in your tracks as you stare in disbelief. This was one of those moments that became so indelibly etched on our psyches that we not only played it in our minds for days following the event, but years later we need only say one word, "Challenger" and immediately, images come rushing back.
January 28, 1986. It has now been twenty-five years since the shuttle Challenger broke apart, high over Cape Canaveral. The nation collectively gasped as seven brave people lost their lives, Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Ellson Onizuka, Gregory, Jarvis, Judith Resnik, and of course, who could forget Christa McAuliffe.
We all remember Christa McAuliffe as the always cheerful new member of this crew. She was to be the first Teacher in Space, the "history teacher making history". Media coverage had been in overdrive prior to the launch and Christa McAuliffe's face had been everywhere. NASA's hope was that the Teacher in Space program would stimulate the public interest and Christa McAuliffe was an ideal ambassador. She loved space and she loved teaching, in return, America loved her.
In my mind's eye I can still see the eager, smiling faces of the crew as they pose pre-flight. I can picture their final walk to the craft, smiling and waving without any trace of fear and oblivious to their fate. Then, the iconic smoke plume… we all stared at that spiral of smoke as it continued to twist and turn and yet our minds couldn’t quite make sense of what we were seeing.
I must admit, the image that has stayed with me the longest is the image that troubled me at the time. In the stands at Cape Canaveral that day stood Christa McAuliffe's proud parents. They were there to watch their daughter soar into space, but when the smoke appeared in the sky, a photographer captured their initial reaction - uncertainty over what was happening mixed with fear and panic. At the time, I was troubled that the news agencies chose to expose this private moment. It was in the early days of 24-hour news so they had not only chosen to expose it, but as is now common, they had also chosen to replay it, scrutinize it, and dissect it. I was raised to believe that some moments are private. Twenty five years after Challenger, I suppose that single image means many things to me, one of which is resignation.
After Challenger, there were many tributes and endless investigations. There was much talk about scattered debris, about ice and O-rings, about fuel tanks and boosters. Satisfactory answers were found and reports were filed, but it was another 32-months before we saw NASA launch anything again. The national excitement however, seems nowhere to be found.
In 1986, we were a different nation. We not only shared the tragedy of that day, but call it information dissemination or simply chalk it up to the innocence of a younger country, but prior to the disaster the nation had supported and shared the mission itself. There was excitement about sending a teacher into space, advancing the space program and the idea of using it all to educate our children. Since that time we seem to be much more detached and cynical, but we have indeed lost much since then. We have experienced mass shootings in malls, businesses and schools, we have endured catastrophic natural disasters, and we lost thousands on 9/11 and continue to do so in the War on Terror. We have become desensitized to violence, death, and tragedy in a way that we might not have imagined a mere twenty-five years ago. Every generation can look back and see how the years before were kinder and gentler, I'm beginning to wonder if that is possible for us now in the wake of this world we are building. Then again, in the words of Christa McAuliffe, "May your future only be limited by your dreams."