It was 25 years ago today that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before our very eyes. For many GenXers, this is their first collective memory; like the Baby Boomers and their recollection of where they were when JFK was shot and killed.
A cold and snowy Tuesday in Northeast Ohio, I was a senior in college, on my second day of work in a Cleveland TV newsroom as an intern. A communication major, I was thrilled to be in the midst of real reporters and producers and directors and anchors working in the business I hoped to find myself employed in very soon.
There was an added thrill to this particular launch for several reasons: Akron’s own Judith Resnick was an astronaut on the flight; Cleveland’s NASA Lewis Research Center (now the John Glenn Research Center) had worked on some of the technology that was part of every shuttle launch; and a civilian, a teacher named Christa McAuliffe, was embarking on an amazing journey and would be sharing her experience with students across America from space. Schoolchildren in every state were watching the launch live on televisions in nearly every classroom.
I remember the line-up of men in white shirts and ties standing in front of the newsroom TVs when the Challenger leapt into the brilliant blue Florida sky on the many screens in front of us. Usually the executives didn’t emerge from their offices to watch the news, but today was different somehow, and there they stood when the unthinkable happened. I was standing at my perch on the assignment desk. And then the explosion. There was complete silence—not something that occurs everyday in a newsroom. And then the news director barked, “GET NASA LEWIS on the phone, and get to Akron!” and the phones and police scanners went crazy.
Back in 1986, I hadn’t found my birthmother, and therefore, hadn’t found Jack and the McAuliffe clan either. I didn’t know I was also a McAuliffe by birth, and yet I felt so especially disheartened by Christa’s death; I couldn’t explain it. Of course I am sure I felt like many other Americans who were just unspeakably saddened by the magnitude of such a tragedy played out in front of our children, in front of the world—these scientists, these astronauts, this teacher—they all seemed like people we knew because of the special nature of this flight.
I still get teary when I read the words of President Ronald Reagan:
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 the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’
Sadly, I also remember the words of President George W. Bush from February 1, 2003, when we lost the Shuttle Columbia:
“It’s gone. There are no survivors.”
It was a weekend, and I was producing the 6 o’clock news myself that day at another Cleveland television station. The memory of Challenger came bubbling back, a fresh wound. And there I was, trying my best to tell the story of yet 7 more American space heroes and heroines in a way that would do their lives justice. There isn’t enough time in a newscast.
Tonight I’ll raise a toast to those who sacrificed their lives for our unquenchable human desire to know our world and beyond; raising my eyes to the stars, for answers that may never come.