Twenty-five years ago today, on January 28, 1986 at 11:39 a.m., the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded about a minute after liftoff, killing all seven astronauts aboard. It was a tragic, heartbreaking day, and I remember it well.
It was a Tuesday afternoon, and we were home from school for a snow day. I remember that they this shuttle mission was historic, as it featured the first non-professional, completely civilian astronaut, “Teacher In Space” Christa McAuliffe. The launch had been delayed for several days due to weather issues at Cape Canaveral and at abort landing sites. The launch date was set for the 28th, in spite of temperatures being at literally the coldest possible point for a launch day.
We were at home watching The Price Is Right, when CBS News interrupted the show to report that “something went wrong” with the Space Shuttle. From that point, all three stations (we didn’t have cable) stuck with live coverage of what was going on. My mom popped a tape into our (Beta) VCR and began recording. I remember the VCR timer being set and on record throughout the next several days, recording speeches, memorials, and other coverage. Even through the tragedy, it was spellbinding to think of watching history unfold through the day.
The Challenger disaster was my first first-hand experience with any type of historic, national tragedy. I remember the attempted assassination of President Reagan, but it actually occurred while I was at school, so I didn’t hear about it until I got home. I vaguely remember the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon and how they affected people, but this was my first real experience with something of that magnitude.
I remember so many things about that time, from that day and from the seemingly endless videotaping we did over the following days. I recall President Reagan’s speech. I remember the speculation as to what caused the accident. I remember learning a fascinating amount of biographical information about the astronauts aboard the shuttle. I recall the slight hope that there were some sort of survivors. And then I watched the memorial service (presumably on tape).
Needless to say it was a sad day, but it was a different kind of sadness, as I recall from my 13-year-old’s perspective. It was that national mourning sort of tragic feeling. Even watching the YouTube videos this week, I felt the same sort of emotions. (It’s particularly strange to watch it in light of the fact that today’s 24-hour news culture wasn’t established at that time.) It was all surreal then and quite surreal even now.
I’ll never forget that day…the emotions…the stunned sadness…the fascination that took place in the midst of tragedy. Dan Rather called it “that awful, pray-it-would-never happen moment.” But it did happen.
Where were you when you found out about the Challenger disaster? What do you remember?