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Memory Dump: Challenger

25 years ago today we lost the shuttle Challenger. I was a student at Chittenango High School, and found out not all at once but in two parts. I was walking to class, probably from lunch, when I overheard the gym teacher talking with one of the other teachers. He was saying something about the shuttle blowing up (he may have said "crashed"), but I wasn't sure of what he was talking about or if he was serious. I was a little worried, but not so much that I changed my routine.

I went to typing class (probably the single most useful class I've ever taken at any level of education) and everything seemed normal. About midway through the class the principal came on the PA. Before he even made the announcement I had a pretty good idea of what he was about to tell us. The only part of the announcement that I clearly remember was that he said that the shuttle "blew up slightly". Good job softening the blow there! Still, that's not the kind of announcement that school faculty prepares to make, so I can't really complain.

The room collectively gasped. Everyone just looked around for a bit, eyes wide and mouths open. Class eventually resumed, but no one spoke of anything else the rest of the day. Details trickled in, but so did a lot of information that later turned out to be incorrect.

After the initial shock wore off my friends and I did what any empathy-challenged teenagers would do- we made jokes. By the end of the day we had a list of them. I think it hadn't sunken in yet, and nobody had actually seen the footage yet, so it wasn't really real yet.

By the end of the day I'd gone from being cruelly humorous about it to being dispassionate but annoyed by how little many of my classmates actually knew about the shuttle. Many of them had no idea that there was more than one (I knew all of their names). One of my classmates was certain that the Russians had shot it down. Even as an idiot teen during the Cold War I knew that was preposterous. But everybody knew who Christa McAuliffe was, and in fact one of the science teachers at our middle school had been in the running for the Teacher In Space program.

The bus ride home was rather somber. It was starting to sink in. I couldn't wait to get home and watch the news. I needed to know what had happened. I needed to confirm that it wasn't just a rumor. I needed to see it for myself.

I got home (I was a "latch key kid"), ran into the house, and immediately turned on the TV. By then my heart was pounding. Of course, it was on every channel.

I saw it for myself.

I cried. A lot. In addition to loss of the crew and the orbiter, the Challenger disaster was the first moment of realization for me that the future might not be the Bright and Shiny Awesomeness that I fully expected it to be. I'd never considered that NASA might not be perfect, or that they were capable of failure. It simply had never occurred to me. I didn't think less of NASA because of it, but I realized that they were human. However, the string of unsuccessful unmanned launches that followed it (does anyone else remember those?) did make me cynical about both NASA and space flight, at least until the Discovery launch on September 29, 1988.

I had just started my freshman year at UF when we finally returned to space. I watched the launch in my dorm room with my roommates and a few other guys in our hall. We held our breath for 73 seconds, and then boy did we ever cheer! Even on my little Commodore 64 monitor (I had a TV tuner) it looked absolutely beautiful. Suddenly the Bright and Shiny was once again at least a possibility, albeit a more tempered one.

To this day, I hold my breath at the words "Go for throttle up." Every single time. I'll bet that most of us who grew up in the `80's do.

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
radven
Jan. 29th, 2011 02:20 am (UTC)
I had a TV tuner for my C64 monitor too (and later on my Amiga). Coolness.

And yes - I hold my breath too. I can hardly believe it has been 25 years.
violet_flames
Jan. 29th, 2011 02:55 am (UTC)
You know the only thing I remember is that there was a teacher and mother on board... I honestly have no idea if that was a message that was drilled into me before or after... I have a feeling that my Mom probably explained that she had a 6 year old (I was six years old myself). I do remember being sad.
violet_flames
Jan. 29th, 2011 02:56 am (UTC)
Scratch that... I was actually 5.
(Deleted comment)
roxybisquaint
Feb. 5th, 2011 02:22 am (UTC)
I was a freshman in college when the Challenger crashed and I only found out about it because I'd called my mom. She filled me in on the news and was shocked I didn't know. But we never had news on the lobby TV in my dorm.

You know what I remember most about that day? I was at a party that night where someone folded a rolling paper into an little airplane, stood a chair, lit it, let it go and said "Hey look, it's the Challenger!" So harsh.
datan0de
Feb. 5th, 2011 04:35 am (UTC)
Wow! What a completely different experience!

Also, were you in college at age 10 or something?!? :-D
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )