I was a senior in high school on January 28, 1986. The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger occurred that day at 11:39 a.m., EST.
The explosion took place just 73 seconds into the shuttle’s flight, and killed all seven crew members. Among the dead was Christa McAuliffe, a Massachusetts teacher who had been a guest astronaut.
That year I had a part-time job in my school’s cafeteria. I was operating a soda machine in the lunch line when the students began filing in, talking about what had happened. This was one of those national tragedies that was announced in classrooms, rather like the assassination of JFK, when my parents were in high school.
The Reagan Administration had been hoping to revive interest in the U.S. space program, as well as to inject some life into math and science education. (Even then, there were concerns that American students were falling behind their global counterparts in math and science.) The presence of teacher Christa McAuliffe on the mission was a key part of that effort. McAuliffe’s inclusion would have been a good idea, perhaps, if not for what happened.
I’m not going to exaggerate, and say that the Challenger disaster depressed me for a month, or anything like that. I was sorry for the loss of life, of course. But in 1986 I was a self-absorbed teenager, and this was a faraway event.
The disaster did have a sobering effect on me, though. At my present age (I’ll let you do the math), I am acutely aware that life is fragile, and that bad things happen to good people. I wasn’t as aware of this in 1986.
The Challenger crash dominated the news for weeks afterward. A case can be made that Christa McAullife received a lion’s share of the media attention. This was probably inevitable, given that she was a civilian volunteer and a teacher. McAuliffe was about the same age as my mother, I remember noting.
The investigations and Congressional hearings surrounding the disaster lasted for several years. In 2004, President George W. Bush conferred posthumous Congressional Space Medals of Honor on all the Challenger crew members.
On the night of the disaster, President Reagan delivered this televised speech to the country. One of his more moving oratory moments, in my opinion.
A sad moment for the country, and one that I still remember, almost four decades later.