It was a cold January morning where I lived twenty years ago. My rural Chester County, Pennsylvania school district had called off the day due to snow. But I also remember how cold it was in the Northeast on January 28, 1986. I had forgotten there was even to be a shuttle mission, nevermind that a teacher was to be on board. So I wound up flipping channels on our cable TV system.
I don’t remember what else was on TV that day, but I do remember coming upon the then-called “Discovery Channel.” There was one of the marvels of modern time sitting on the launch pad in Florida. It was a bright blue sky that framed the live picture of Challenger aimed toward the heavens. I remember thinking to myself…. “oh yeah, the teacher is on this flight…. that must be why the Discovery Channel is showing this launch.” I also thought about the millions of school kids across the USA that were watching the same thing I was at the moment in their classrooms.
Discovery Channel had no commentators on their broadcast, they were merely showing the live feed from NASA with the dialogue between Mission Control and the Challenger Seven. The countdown descended to zero and then the blast of the solid rocket boosters shot flame and smoke across the blue sky canvas and filled my television screen. Launch commentator Hugh Harris, the voice of NASA-TV that day said the words that began the events that linger in our memories today: “Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”
I remember marveling at this mechanical beast in its struggle against the force of gravity; slowly rolling and climbing into that rich blue sky. Harris’ voice gave way to Mission Control spokesman Steve Nesbitt in Houston: “Good roll program confirmed. Challenger now heading downrange.” Shortly after, I remember marveling at this sight and wondering almost aloud to myself, “Gosh, I wonder what they would do if this thing blew up.” It is a thought that has repeatedly haunted me for twenty years.
A few moments later, Nesbitt continued marking Challenger’s progress: “Velocity 2,257 feet per second (1,539 mph), altitude 4.3 nautical miles, downrange distance 3 nautical miles…”
And then the words that will forever be etched into my mind and experience as a child of the 1980s. NASA Astronaut Dick Covey at Mission Control says, “Challenger, go at throttle up.” And aboard the soaring spacecraft, Shuttle commander Dick Scobee utters the infamous words, “Roger, go at throttle up.”
A few hours later, President Ronald Reagan tried to console a nation with more famous words of my past. I have always thought this was one of Reagan’s greatest moments at one of America’s lowest.
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.
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.
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.”