On the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Dayton Ward reminds us today that, twenty-six years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after lift-off, killing all seven members of her crew.

In my brother’s attic is, I assume, a box filled with newspapers I collected at the time, articles on the crew, articles on the disaster itself, articles on the investigation, articles on the hearings. I think that I meant to make a scrapbook of them.

I was twelve. I was in the eighth grade, a student at John C. Myers Junior High School in Broadway, Virginia. (Apparently, that school is now an elementary school, having been replaced by a new school.) I’d read the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, then just four books, over the Christmas holidays when my family visited my grandparents in Baltimore.

I was a space nut. I owned and treasured a copy of Bill Yenne’s The Encyclopedia of U.S. Spacecraft, which was exactly what the title says, an encyclopedia that documented every rocket, every launch, every manned and unmanned mission. In my two-and-a-half years at John C. to that point, I’d torn through the school library’s collection of space books, like Michael Collins’ books on the Apollo missions. And there was one book I especially loved — and checked it out time and again — though I have no idea what the title was: it was a book on space exploration that was illustrated with concept art from 2001: A Space Odyssey. (I had read Clarke’s book by that point, but I hadn’t seen the film, so I never made the connection between the artwork of Clavius Base in the book and Clarke’s story.)

And somehow, I didn’t get told about the shuttle explosion that day. I didn’t know until I got home around 4 o’clock in the afternoon.

No, that’s not quite true. I didn’t know for certain until then. Other students in the school knew, and there was some talk about it on the school bus, but I didn’t believe it.

The closest I came to being told what had happened in Florida that day came late. My last class for the day was an art class, and we were working on collages on poster board. And me, being the space nut, clipped a picture of a shuttle lifting off out of a magazine and pasted it into my collage. (I think it was meant to be a montage of the kind of setting Ray Bradbury described in The Martian Chronicles, with space ports in small towns in Ohio and rockets lifting off in the night in the same way that trains rolled through town a century earlier.) I remember that the teacher’s aide saw that I’d done that, pasted a shuttle liftoff into my montage, and she asked me how I felt. But it was a question without context for me, and so I told her that I was fine, because why wouldn’t I be?

In eighth grade I had a good English teacher and a bad English teacher, but at the span of twenty-six years I couldn’t tell you either of their names. The good English teacher was in my first semester, and she made learning fun. (This is in contrast to my seventh grade English teacher, who made me miserable.) She left after the end of the first semester, the good English teacher, to take a job at the junior high school on the opposite end of the county, which was actually much closer to her home. The bad English teacher wasn’t bad, per se, just dull, and I remember that I had to deliver an oral book report for her that second semester, and I chose to do my book report on Challengers, the Washington Post‘s biography of the seven shuttle astronauts. It wasn’t a great oral book report by any means; I got bogged down in the details and the minutiae of the lives of seven people, who they were and what they wanted from their lives, who really had tying them (and the book’s narrative) together except the dream of space and the accident that claimed their lives.

We’ve lost the dream of space. I think we lost it as a society a long time ago, long before Challenger. I think the shuttle, as amazing a piece of hardware as it was, made space routine, and routine in anything is boring. Someday we’ll dream the big dreams again, dreams worthy of the seven men and women who boarded a space shuttle in the pre-dawn hours of January 28, 1986. I hope that day comes soon.

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