On Janaury 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff.  All aboard were killed.  

 

One of the astronauts was Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space. I, in second grade at the time, was in the exact demographic the teacher-in-space program was targeting, so I’d heard quite a bit about it. The run-up to the launch had been tremendously exciting, with all these promises of special material filmed just for us, the nation’s children. It was a grand time to be a kid interested in science. I think we were even going to watch the broadcasts live. We did watch the launch live. That was a special treat.  The launch had been delayed a couple of times, but eventually the teachers just said that they’d let us watch the launch whenever it happened, if it happened on school time. Oddly enough, I don’t remember much of my or my classmates’ immediate reaction to the disaster, just the bare facts: the shuttle lifting off into the clear blue, and then–

 

I remember talking about it, afterwards, in a specially-called assembly: lots of somber grownups. My memory is hazy on whether it was the same day or some time later.

 

One thing I do remember about the aftermath was how suddenly and completely everyone’s interest in space shut down. Before the launch, space travel was the coolest.  Kids wanted to be astronauts.  Girls could be astronauts–there’d already been Sally Ride, and there was another female astronaut aboard Challenger (Judith Resnik)–so finally there was one cool-sounding adult job that the boys hadn’t already claimed their exclusive property.  Outer space was awesome.

 

And then, nothing. Suddenly, space was… well, it was still cool, but the bloom was off the rose. Before Challenger, we heard lots about the space program and how important it was and all the cool discoveries that were being made–and I remember it, rightly or wrongly, as a time when shuttles were launched with terrific frequency.  Now it was “When we get back into space…” with the distinct implication that we should not get our hopes up.  The science fiction that had seemed so tantalizingly close pre-Challenger was pushed back well over the horizon.

 

And that’s a shame, because that’s when the future needed kids most of all. I kept my interest in science, even if working in space had just moved from the “things I can do when I grow up” column to the “things I can’t do” column.  But for lots of kids, the Challenger disaster killed dreams along with seven remarkable individuals.

Francis “Dick” Scobee

Michael J. Smith

Ellison Onizuka

Judith Resnik

Ronald McNair

Sharon Christa McAuliffe

Gregory Jarvis