I can’t believe it’s 25 years to the day since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. I remember it as if it were yesterday. I remember seeing it with my own eyes.
In January 1986, I was an eighth-grader at a 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 around 40 miles north of my house, just north of the barrier island that 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 on its front page awaiting that first launch, eagerly scanning the sky with my parents’ binoculars. John Young had even come to my elementary school to dedicate a mural we’d created in honor of NASA.
Growing up along the Space Coast, you couldn’t avoid a shuttle launch; if you didn’t happen to be outside to follow the flame and the contrail coursing through the sky, the sonic boom would rattle the neighborhood with such resonance that it would vibrate your doors and set off car alarms.
Our community was immersed in NASA culture, whether or not your individual families contributed to it directly. My elementary school had been named after the Gemini program; our rival high school was named Satellite High. The establishing shot for the TV show “I Dream of Jeannie” – the building with the rockets in front of it – was filmed just north of us at Patrick Air Force Base. A neighbor friend of mine even had a life-size mockup of a Gemini mission capsule in his garage, left over from when a NASA engineer lived in the house. We’d played inside it so many times, flipping every switch in every conceivable combination, that eventually we just used it as a clubhouse to swap baseball cards.
During my lunch period at school that chilly morning in January 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was scheduled to launch. Normally if a launch were taking place at that time, I’d eat quickly and wait outside to catch the entire take-off. That day, 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. The native Bostonian in me had become so acclimatized to Florida weather that I didn’t want to be outside in such frigid temperatures. To complicate matters, I had a big test later that day and wasn’t particularly prepared, so I kept my head buried in a text book while scarfing down lunch.
As lunch period wrapped up, I figured I’d poke my head outside, just in case the launch had taken place. I didn’t expect to see anything, since I couldn’t imagine they’d proceed with a launch in such cold temperatures. Stepping out the front doors of the school, a small group of students was staring slightly upwards, facing due north. No one was talking. I looked up, expecting to see either nothing or the shuttle barreling towards space, its contrail arcing gently through the sky like the world’s largest lowercase letter r.
What I saw, though, didn’t make any sense.
The contrail was shaped like a gargantuan capital Y, as if two stunt jets had flown in a tight formation and then parted in separate directions. The two contrails subdivided again and again, a weeping willow-like fractal pattern splitting into hundreds of faint lines, all drifting slowly downward towards the ocean.
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 to their next class. There just seemed to be more commotion than usual. I was settling in for my French class when a friend of mine came up to my desk 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 in French class, confused and in denial, I half-expected the period to begin as it always did. Instead, the school principal came over the PA system and announced, with great emotion in his voice, 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. Others rushed out the door without asking permission, no doubt eager to get to the main office and call home to check if their parents – NASA employees – were safe. I asked my teacher if I could be excused. She just nodded her head in silence.
I left the classroom and went straight to the small media lab in the school library. It was probably the only place in school outside the principal’s office that had a television, and I just couldn’t sit in class not knowing exactly what had happened. I needed to learn more. Every channel covered the disaster non-stop, but the coverage was all chaos – no one knew what caused the explosion or if the astronauts could have survived. It certainly appeared that it had been a fatal accident. I kept thinking of those hundreds of delicate contrails I’d seen outside, descending inexorably towards the sea. Which of those hauntingly beautiful weeping willow branches trailed the astronauts’ launch chamber in their final moments of life?
I must have sat in the media lab for two, three, four hours. I honestly don’t know. Time flowed into irrelevancy that afternoon. At some point, my American history teacher, who happened to be my French teacher’s husband, came into the room. Normally a real jokester who couldn’t stop talking, he was grave and somber, silently watching the television with me. It must have been his planning period, I thought, but I never asked him; I couldn’t keep my eyes off the TV.
He then grabbed his class materials and began to walk out the door. I looked back and we made eye contact for the first time that day.
“This is your Kennedy,” he said, glassy-eyed, closing the door as he left.
Eventually, the school day came to an end. Many students had departed earlier. 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 etch in our memory – or scar into it – what we had just witnessed.
I’ve thought about the Challenger disaster countless 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 JFK assassination had been for my parents, and September 11 would later be to the generation after me, the Challenger disaster was 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 wanted to remember that moment or not.