Thursday, January 28, 2016

Remembering the Challenger Seven

The Challenger Seven
1st Row (L to R): Mike Smith, Francis "Dick" Scobee,
Dr. Ronald McNair
2nd Row (L to R): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe
Gregory Jarvis, Dr. Judith Resnik
The date was January 28, 1986. I was 10 years old and was a student in the 5th Grade at Chapelwood Elementary.

There were no cell phones. There were no electronic devices. There was no internet.

I reported to the school clinic to take my medicine for asthma after lunch just as I did every day, and I noticed the nurse’s aide was crying. I asked her if she was ok, and she said she was. She just kept listening to this news broadcast on the radio as she opened the filing cabinet and handed me my medication. I didn't press the issue with her, but I remember wondering why she was so sad.  I took my medicine and went back to class

The rest of the school day was pretty normal I guess because I don't remember anything else about the day at school.  I just remember being 10 years old and curious and wanting to know how the day's Space Shuttle Challenger launch went.

Unlike many school children, I was blissfully unaware for a few hours that teacher Christa McAuliffe and six others had perished in one of our country’s worst space program disasters. On TV sets at school-wide assemblies, those other children watched the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger live, and they saw the horrible aftermath of the Challenger breaking apart.

A malfunction in the Solid Rocket Booster’s o-rings caused the SRB to slam into the External Fuel Tank and destroy the Challenger. The horror would have to wait until I got home, and it was up to my grandmother to break the news. 

Like many kids my age, I loved the space program and was enthralled by the cosmos. There were nights when I would lay on the porch with my family and look up into the night sky for the Big Dipper and the Little Dipper and Orion and other constellations.  I was five years old when the Space Shuttle Columbia was launched to start the shuttle program, and I can remember watching that launch early one morning with my parents like it was yesterday. 

The loss of the Challenger Seven hit me hard, and it seemed like the television news stations couldn’t get enough of the live video of the space vehicle coming apart as those SRBs snaked away from the scene.  I remember not quite understanding the gravity of the situation, but trying to make sense of everything in my childhood mind.

So, here we are 30 years later. The legacy of the Challenger Seven continues thanks to the work of  their surviving families.  Because of their strength, the lessons of that shuttle mission that were just supposed to take a few days have become much more enduring.  Over 40 Challenger Centers have opened all over the country teaching young and old alike about space and the teamwork it takes to solve complex problems. 

Let  us honor Commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, Mission Specialist Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist Ron McNair, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis, and Teacher Christa McAuliffe. 

On the night they died, President Ronald Reagan took to the airwaves.  He was supposed to give his State of the Union Speech that night, but he postponed it.  Instead, he spoke directly to the nation about the day's loss and put it directly in perspective what it meant.  

He also took a moment to speak directly to those little ones, like me, that were struggling to make sense of the entire incident.  So many others had witnessed the awful event live that morning.  In his poignant remarks, Reagan said:
“On this day 390 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 the journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Whether your religious or not, the imagery is peaceful and beautiful.  The perspective was perfect.  Astronauts and those that push the boundaries of human life to contribute to a greater understanding of the world are truly heroes.

The Challenger Seven were truly heroes. They all died on January 28, 1986.  30 years ago today.

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