“Where Were You?” – The Challenger Explosion 25 Years Later

Space Shuttle launchphoto © 2010 Paul T. | more info (via: Wylio)

I was in AP American History. I chose American History because I liked it better than European History, but more importantly, I liked the teacher, Dr. Paul Dickler, who also happened to be our Senior Class Advisor. I loved “Doc”. I would swear his Ed.D was in teen relations. He knew how to connect with students from all segments of the population of over 2,800 students.

I was in eigth grade when the first shuttle launched. Our whole school tuned in. I was mesmerized. I could only imagine what that ride away from the Earth’s gravitational pull felt like. Somehow or other, I managed to watch every subsequent shuttle launch. By then, shuttle launches had become “routine” to many people. I was still enthralled and I wasn’t going to let no stinkin’ college level history class break my streak. I watched the clock carefully and at two minutes to launch, I suddenly had a desperate need to use the bathroom. It was a small class, so I exited as subtly as I could. I think Doc may have asked if I could wait until a section break, but I was clear I needed to leave THEN.

Alas, my timing was off. As I strolled by the science class down the hall, I heard the announcer say there was still T-4 minutes to launch. No way that teacher would let me hover in his doorway for four minutes. Off to the bathroom I went. I passed the time, washed my hands and made a slow saunter back toward my classroom. I made it to the science class doorway by T-30. All I eyes were focused on the TV monitor threatening to topple the rolling cart in the corner. No one even noticed me.

“3-2-1 and lift off! Lift off of the 25th Space Shuttle Mission!”

photo © 2006 Eric Ward | more info (via: Wylio)God it was beautiful. My heart pounded as the rockets glowed and the shuttle soared. Then came the explosion of white and the trails of white clouds cutting across the screen at odd angles. It took me a second to realize those weren’t clouds, those smoke plumes.

Silence.

“Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously a major malfunction.”

Like everyone else, I was transfixed. What just happened?

Silence.

The long silvery smoke trails ran down the screen like raindrops on a windshield. Then finally “The vehicle has exploded.” As if universally choreographed, we all raised our hands to cover our to mouths.

It was then that the teacher turned and spotted me. He gave me a nod as if to dismiss me. I quickly withdrew to the hallway and made my way back to my rightful room. I returned the hall pass and moved towards my seat. Doc looked at me as if to acknowledge my extended absence. “The Space Shuttle just exploded.” I said.

Doc’s reaction was immediate and fierce. “What? That’s sick! I can’t believe you would say that!”, as if I was playing a twisted prank. He glared at me and I took my seat. His words stung because I was so fond of him and I thought he liked and trusted me. I knew it was the truth, so I kept my mouth shut. My classmates all looked at me shocked at Doc’s outburst and clearly wanting more details. With an uncharacteristly scathing, silencing, sideways glance, Doc resumed the class. It was only a minute or two later, that Mr. Evans, our principal interrupted classes over the loudspeaker confirming my story.

Doc, turned sharply to look at me a stunned expression on his face. It was probably easier for him to believe a high school student would play sick prank then to think that the space shuttle had exploded. “I’m sorry.” he said quietly. I shrugged. What was there to say? He asked me to share what I knew and we discussed it briefly then tried to focus on American History for the last 15 minutes of class, It just wasn’t possible.

On the 25th anniversary of the explosion, I find myself living in New Hampshire. I have friends who had Ms. McAuliffe in high school. She is legend (rightfully so) in these parts. Her parents worked to continue her legacy, her husband withdrew from the spotlight to raise their children. New Hampshire mourned their heroine and then worked to honor her legacy while fiercely protecting Steven McAullife’s privacy.

I am married and have two children who are almost the same ages McAullife’s were at the time of her death. While I can’t imagine leaving them without a mother, I can completely understand Christa McAullife’s desire to travel into space and share what she learned. I applaud her drive and I thank her family for their sacrifice.

Generations before me talked about where they were when President John F. Kennedy was shot or when the lunar module landed. The Challenger Explosion stood as my “where were you when . . .” moment until September 11, 2001. I think two in a lifetime is more than enough, don’t you?

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