Tomorrow’s the annivesary. January 28, 1986.
I can’t believe it’s been 20 years.
I was an eighth-grader at Hoover Junior High School in Indialantic, Florida. Like so many other kids in my community, I’d grown up with the space program. The launch pads of Cape Canaveral were only 40 miles north of our town, jutting out of Merritt Island, just north of the barrier island I called home.
I’d probably seen at least 20 of the previous space shuttle launches, going back to STS-1 in April 1981, when John Young and Robert Crippen piloted the Enterprise; the local newspaper even ran a picture of me awaiting that first launch, eagerly scanning the sky with my binoculars.
Growing up along the Space Coast, you couldn’t avoid a shuttle launch; if you didn’t happen to step outside to follow the contrail racing through the sky, the sonic boom would rattle the neighborhood so loudly it would set off car alarms. Our community was a part of the space program, whether or not our individual families contributed to it. My elementary school had been named after the Gemini program; our rival high school was Satellite High. The outdoor shots for “I Dream of Jeannie” were filmed just north of us at Patrick Air Force Base. My friend Todd Demetriades even had a life-size mockup of a Gemini capsule in his garage, left over from when a NASA engineer lived in the house; playing astronaut in that Gemini capsule was as good as it gets when you’re a 10-year-old boy.
Sometime during my lunch period at school that chilly morning in January, the space shuttle Challenger was expected to take off. Normally if a launch were taking place at this time, I’d cram down my lunch and wait outside to catch it from the start. Today, though, I wasn’t in a rush. It was ridiculously cold outside, to the point where there had been a frost warning the previous night for the orange crops, and I’d become so acclimatized to Florida weather that I didn’t want to be outside in such frigid temperatures. To make matters worse, I had a big test later that day and wasn’t particularly prepared, so I kept my head shoved in a text book while scarfing down lunch.
As lunch period wrapped up, I figured I’d poke my head outside just to see if the launch had been delayed. Stepping out the front doors of the school, a small group of people was staring upwards facing due north. I looked up, expecting to see the shuttle barrelling towards space, its contrail tracing gently through the sky.
What I saw, though, didn’t make any sense.
The contrail was shaped like a Y, as if two stunt jets had flown up in a tight formation and then parted in two directions. Then the contrails split again and again, a weeping willow-like fractal pattern splitting into hundreds of faint lines, all drifting slowly downward.
I walked back into the school, unable to process what I had just witnessed. Throughout the hallways, students wrapped up the final lunch period and were making their way back into class. There just seemed to be more commotion than usual. I made my way back to Mrs. Deppner’s French class when my friend Dave Wallack stopped me and said, “Someone just told me the shuttle blew up.”
I shrugged and told him it was crazy. My head still hadn’t processed what my eyes had just witnessed.
Sitting down in Mrs. Deppner’s class, I half-expected the period to begin as it always did. Instead, the school principal came over the PA system and announced, with great sorrow, that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded about a minute after takeoff. Most of the class sat there, stunned. A few students began to cry; some of them rushed out, no doubt eager to call home and check to see if their parents – NASA employees – were safe. I asked Mrs. Deppner if I could be excused.
I left the classroom and went straight for the small media lab at the school library. It was probably the only place in school outside the principal’s office that had a television, and I couldn’t sit in class not knowing what had happened. Every channel was covering the disaster non-stop, but it was all chaos – no one knew what caused the explosion or whether the astronauts could have survived. It certainly appeared that it was a fatal accident. I kept thinking of those hundreds of delicate contrails descending to the sea. Which of those weeping willow branches was the astronauts’ chamber?
I must have sat in the media lab for two, three, four hours. Who knows. Time became irrelevant that afternoon. At some point, my American history teacher, Mr. Deppner – my French teacher’s husband – came into the room. Normally a real jokester, Mr. Deppner was very somber, silently watching the TV with me. It must have been his planning period. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the TV. Mr. Deppner then grabbed his things and began to walk out the door. I looked back and we made eye contact.
“This is your Kennedy,” he said, closing the door as he left.
Soon enough, the school day had ended. There was no point in staying in the media lab any longer when I could get on my bike and go home. Stepping outside, I looked one more time in the direction of the weeping willow contrails. Incredibly, they were still hanging in the air, as if the explosion had occurred moments earlier. Normally, a shuttle’s contrail evaporates within an hour of takeoff, if not sooner. But the air was so cold and calm that particular day, it remained etched in the sky, as if to hammer home what had happened to anyone who had doubted it the first time around.
I’ve thought about the Challenger disaster many times since then; the events of that day were so formative to my teenage years that I even wrote my college entrance essay about it. The Challenger explosion was indeed My Kennedy. As the Kennedy assasination had been for my parents, the Challenger disaster one of those rare life-altering events for which you remember exactly where you were and what you were doing at that particular moment – whether you want to remember it or not.
- Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee
- Pilot Michael J. Smith
- Mission Specialist Judith Resnik
- Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka
- Mission Specialist Ronald McNair
- Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis
- Payload Specialist/Educator Christa McAuliffe
We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.