January 28, 1986.
I was 7 years old and a 2nd grader in elementary school. Two years younger than the age my daughter is now.
I was sitting with my class. Watching live TV. This was the last day we ever watched a Space shuttle launch. Up until then, every single one was an event.
It was so exciting. Christa McAuliffe was supposed to be the first teacher in Space. She was the pride of all teachers at that time. She was the first member of the Teacher in Space Project.
We had our own “Space” teacher at my school. She was a 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Hanibut. She was a spacenut. She even got a space shuttle simulator built in our school. She was one of the teachers considered to go up in the Challenger that day. It was a big disappointment to our school when she wasn’t chosen.
And then the shuttle exploded. 73 seconds after it launched, it exploded into pieces. All 7 crew members gone in an instant.
I was so young I didn’t understand what was going on at first. I didn’t understand why my teachers were gasping and then crying. Finally, someone explained it to us. It was a somber day at school. I heard a rumor that Mrs. Hanibut had to leave she was so upset.
When I got home from school, my Mom had been crying all day. It just wasn’t possible. President Reagan was on the TV that night offering words of comfort to the families of the deceased and to all Americans.
My grandma lived in New Smyrna Beach, FL at the time and used to watch all the shuttle launches from her condo right next to the beach. She was watching when disaster struck. After that, she never watched a single space shuttle launch again.
My favorite show at the time, Punky Brewster, had a “very special” episode about the tragedy. Punky wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. I remember her crying as she talked to Henry about it. It was such a cultural moment. I read that within one hour of the explosion, 85% of Americans had heard about it.
I believe the instant that shuttle exploded, America’s love affair with the Space program ended.
Twenty-five years later it still seems so surreal.