Memories are our connection to the past. The more they are tied to our emotions, the more vividly we can recall the circumstances within which the memory is ensconced. That is why we remember certain childhood holidays and traumatic events far better than other, sometimes more important, events. That is why we can remember so lucidly those airplanes hitting those two skyscrapers, those jubilant people atop the Berlin Wall as they swung sledgehammers, and the day the American hockey team defeated the Russians in the Olympics.
It is why the U.S.S. Challenger stands out in our memory so starkly, those clouds of white smoke forever roiling in the clear blue morning sky over Florida.
I was a junior in college when the Challenger disaster occurred. I was asleep. And I’ll never forget it.
Being the type of person to spend half the night reading (instead of studying), I had only been in bed for a couple of hours (and may have been awake when the disaster actually happened, if the launch had not been delayed). I usually watched the shuttle launches. A child of the 60’s and a fan of the space program (I watched Neil Armstrong take his “one small step” when I was six years old), I still thrilled at the sight of liftoff and rockets thrusting their payload into the atmosphere on ever-extending pillars of fire and smoke-clouds.
But not that morning. I was in bed. The shuttle launch had been delayed until 11:38 a.m. because of equipment difficulties.
That is, until my roommate came barreling through my bedroom door, yelling, “Get up! Get up!” Fully dressed (he’d been to class) and breathing as if he had just finished sprinting up to our ninth-floor apartment, he added, “I can’t believe you guys are still in bed!”
Through bleary eyes, I asked him what the hell was so important. My other roommate made groaning noises another part of the apartment.
“The space shuttle just exploded!”
And just like that, I was animated. Blankets and quilts and pillows were tossed aside. Clothes were quickly pulled on. Amid the “whats” and “hows” and “whys” and the television our excited and shouting roommate had turned on, volume rising with a succession of clicks, he told his two now alert roommates that he had heard about it passing through a student common area, had even stopped to watch a replay of the explosion in a dorm lobby as he took the usual shortcut back to our apartment from class. He didn’t know what happened. Nobody knew.
And then we saw it. Our living room now grown silent as the event unfolded, we watched the shuttle lift off and heard the mission control acknowledge that it was so. We watched as the Challenger rose into the air and began to arc across the sky. Then those billowing white horns of cloud that was to become the mental imprint of millions suddenly bloomed into being.
I was speechless. The other newly awakened roommate just said “Damn!” in a low, unnaturally husky voice. The other, his excitement now seeming to drain from him, simply said, “Oh, man….”
I was shocked. How could this happen? And not just how, but what — what had just happened? Why? The same questions that we’d shouted at our message bearer were ricocheting around inside my head as we watched replay after replay of the tragedy, listened to the voices growing confused after the explosion, thinking there had only been a rocket malfunction. Channel after television channel and all playing the same terrible thing, announcers reluctantly breaking to commercials at uneven intervals.
All day long…
I can remember feeling a sense of utter loss. Seven lives gone in seconds. That poor school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, so eager to go in the pre-launch press conference. The space program thrown into disarray. What would become of NASA? The questions. So many questions. Just 73 seconds of flight and there were so many questions. And so many that could not be answered and would not be answered for months, confusing the situation, superimposing themselves over the images replaying in tragic color again and again on television.
And I felt a little guilty. I felt that I had somehow let those astronauts down, not being there at the end to lend some type of support. A feeling that if I had just been awake and watchful that whatever had caused such a tragedy would not have occurred at all. It was a strange, illogical, fleeting feeling of guilt, but I felt it.
January 28, 1986 is forever etched in my mind. That day when seven astronauts, seven symbols of our space exploration program, would never complete their mission. I’ll never forget the looks of dismay and disbelief on my roommates faces, those softly uttered words, my feeling of hollow detachment and loss, as if someone had physically reached inside my body and pulled out something necessary and familiar, something I did not want to lose.
Investigators would later find that a rocket seal failed on the Challenger, causing the booster rockets to explode before they could be disengaged, killing all seven astronauts aboard instantly.
Twenty-two years ago I was 22 years old. I am still connected to that day.
Tariq Malik, “Remembering Challenger: Shuttle Disaster and Others Refocus NASA,” Space.com
Nick Greene, “Challenger Disaster — A NASA Tragedy,” About.com