“Why does everyone have their radios on?”
That’s what I asked in the crowded lunchroom that day at work. I walked through the humming factory and into the lunchroom, and the whole way I noticed radios playing everywhere.
It was just before 12:30 in the afternoon, EST on January 28, 1986.
I expected to hear something like, “Shh! We’re waiting to hear the winning lottery numbers!” or “They’re going to play Michael Jackson’s new song in a few minutes!” or “The President’s going to make a speech!”
Then someone said it.
I didn’t expect to hear those words. They weren’t words of joy. It wasn’t good news.
It wasn’t like someone was telling me that my dad fell off a ladder and broke his knee.
It wasn’t like hearing that someone took a shot at the President.
It wasn’t like hearing that John Lennon was killed.
It was worse.
“The Space shuttle blew up!”
I was floored. I was speechless.
I felt like someone hit me in the chest with a baseball bat.
I gasped for air.
For months, many months, we watched as NASA prepared a woman, a school teacher, to be the first American civilian in outer space. We saw her on the TV all the time. We saw her busy in training facilities. We saw her dressed in astronaut suits. We saw her smiling the whole time.
Christa McAuliffe from New Hampshire.
Oh, the words she would have to tell us what it was like out there in the black yonder.
“The Earth looks beautiful, like a big, blue superball from up there!” she might say. “I hope someday everyone can experience what I did!”
The things she could teach her students in years to come.
“The G-forces upon taking off were tremendous. I couldn’t even move my arms!”
But she never made it.
The whole lunchroom was quiet and somber. Some of the women were crying, and so were some of the men. Meals went uneaten.
The man on the radio gave us hope with words about rescuing the crew, telling us that the astronauts have safety systems, emergency equipment, an ejection system. There was hope.
Then we heard that the shuttle was already more than eight miles up in the air over the ocean when it was lost, and going almost 2,000 mph. Who could survive that speed? Who could survive a fall so far? Did any parachutes open?
“Are all of you ok?” I asked. “Does anyone feel the need to go home?”
With that, the bell rang. Lunchtime was over. Some people got up and hurried back to their workstations and machines so they could listen to their radios some more. Others didn’t move and stayed in the break room, weeping, wiping their wet eyes and blowing their noses. But nobody went home.
I turned and left to go to the office to tell everyone in there what had happened. After more gasps and more tears, more radios came on.
Then I went to my office and closed the door. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of picking up the phone and calling someone, but I didn’t. Instead, I covered my face with my hands and I cried. I cried for the astronauts, I cried for their families, I cried for the Space Shuttle Challenger, and I cried for America.
America in the 1980s was not without it’s significant moments: hostages, John Lennon’s murder, assassination attempts on the President and the Pope, the USS Stark. In the 1970s there was Watergate and resignations among other events.
But America hadn’t had a blow like this since President Kennedy was killed.
My own radio was on and I listened to the transmission from The Kennedy Space Center. They played the same thing over and over all day, a clip that was only 73 seconds into the flight to the stars:
“Challenger, go at throttle up!”
Commander Scobee: “Roger. Go at throttle up.”
The cruel and ill-fated order was given:
“Challenger, go at throttle up!”
Commander Scobee: “Roger. Go at throttle up.”
I heard it over and over.
After work, I watched TV at home.
Over and over I watch the magnificent space shuttle climbing toward the sky upon a pillar of fire and plume of white smoke.
Christa McAuliffe’s parents watched from special VIP bleachers. They must have been so proud of their daughter. But smiles soon turned to confusion as the shuttle disintegrated in a big, pink and orange ball of fire.
It was beautiful, really; this image of tragedy was quite beautiful as a slightly arched white stream of smoke ascended into a colorful ball of fire, sending two booster rockets on their wayward paths, creating two more beautiful white streams of smoke. And the crystal-clear, sapphire-blue sky was a beautiful backdrop to the white and orange of the spectacular explosion.
But in this picture I kept looking for signs that perhaps the shuttle was intact enough that it would have given the astronauts a chance to survive. Over and over, I looked at the pieces around the ball of fire, hoping that I would see something that everyone else had missed.
I hoped and hoped.
But there was never anything large enough.
Astronauts Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Judith Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and teacher Christa McAuliffe, and the Space Shuttle Challenger were lost that day, at 11:39 a.m. EST, and we all wept for them and their families.
In the coming weeks and months, after countless videos and reports, we would learn that a rubber O-ring was to blame. Something that sounded so simple yet was very complex and, obviously, very important.
The explosion and the faces of bewildered Mr. And Mrs. McAuliffe are forever etched on my mind. I will never forget that moment in time.
That evening we listened to President Reagan:
Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we've never lost an astronaut in flight. We've never had a tragedy like this.
And perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.
For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, 'Give me a challenge, and I'll meet it with joy.' They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
We've grown used to wonders in this century. It's hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and, perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We're still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's take-off. I know it's hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.
I've always had great faith in and respect for our space program. And what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don't hide our space program. We don't keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That's the way freedom is, and we wouldn't change it for a minute.
We'll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue.
I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA, or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”
There's a coincidence today. On this day three hundred and ninety years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, 'He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.' Well, today, we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete.
The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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.'
Where were you that day?
© 2010 Biff Remington, Model Citizen - 2/1/13