Totally 80s: The Challenger space shuttle

Welcome the next installment of my year-long look back at the decade that was ruled by big hair and bigger egos. Every other week I’ll be covering pop culture tidbits from the 1980s, sharing memories, choking on the ridiculousness, and maybe offering an insight or two into what made the 1980s so great/bad/silly. Serving as my inspiration are two lists from Buzzfeed, and I’ll include links to the original list items in each post. So throw on your neon windbreaker, lace up your hi-tops, and adjust your Wayfarers, because this DeLorean is taking off! (Ugh. Did I really just type that? Gag me with spoon, seriously.)

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List item #5 from 50 Things only ’80s Kids Can Understand

Remembering where you were when the Challenger disaster happened.

© ABC News (1986)
© ABC News (1986)

I was at home.

I don’t remember why I was at home, but that’s where I was. Maybe I was sick. Maybe we were snowed in. Maybe the school allowed it because the Challenger launch on Tuesday, January 28, 1986, was kind of big deal.

I was then nearing the end of elementary school, and up to that launch, my life had been, in one way or another, consumed by the Challenger. And I don’t mean that in a bad way, (like when the Iran-Contra hearings took over the airwaves just a few years later) because the whole affair was perfectly electric!

We spent weeks in science class leaning about space, the solar system, and what it took to get a space shuttle out there. We learned about the Apollo missions and the moon landings. We learned about astronauts and cosmonauts and monkey-nauts. We talked about space races and moon walks. In English class, we wrote essays on books we had read about space travel. In math class, we learned about circumferences through the rotation of satellites around the Earth. In gym class, yes, even gym class, our play took on the spirit of astronaut training.

I must have had a dozen different posters on the solar system.
I must have had a dozen different posters on the solar system.

Though I didn’t grow up with dreams of going into space, my infatuation with all things Star Wars instilled an abiding interest in things not of this Earth. My growing fascination with NASA and the space shuttle drove me into learning all I could about the ships from Star Wars – from the Millennium Falcon to the oft overlooked yet highly awesome B-Wing fighter. With no Internet assistance back in ancient times, I devoured any and all Star Wars books like nobody’s business. And then I sped through books on space and planets and stars, and stories about what might be out there. And also…how could I forget…the television! Television shows about space and traveling in it! I became obsessed with the likes of Star Trek, Buck Rogers, Battlestar Galactic, Lost in Space, Space: 1999, and Doctor Who. (Re-runs, yes, but they were all new to me!)

For months the Challenger and its famous crew were in the news, all the time. I’m sure I knew their names by heart, but teacher Christa McAuliffe was the crew member I knew best. I never met her, no one I knew had, yet everyone knew about her and her story. An early member of the once defunct Teacher in Space Project, McAuliffe became famous for being just that, the first teacher in space. All of my teachers had posters of her in their classrooms.

STS-51-L crew: (front row) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair; (back row) Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik.
From left to right (top): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik; (bottom) Michael J. Smith, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair

By the time January 28th rolled around, I was brimming with excitement. (If I recall correctly, the flight was supposed to happen several days earlier but was delayed.) On that day I clearly remember setting myself up in front of the television, sitting on my favorite pillow. My spatial memory of the moment is quite fuzzy – all I saw was the television, the Challenger on the launch pad. I heard the countdown and then something something liftoff. I knew from my classes and books that the first few minutes of a shuttle’s launch could be very dangerous as the thing gained enough speed to shoot out of the atmosphere.

I may or may not have been breathing as the shuttle climbed higher.

And then…sparks and….boom. The shuttle became engulfed in a cloud of smoke, which started to trail off in different directions.

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And then silence. In our room. Not the news, that continued haphazardly. Voices on the TV continued, but the silence in our living room was deafening.

I heard the words “malfunction, “exploded,” and “not alive,” and became quite confused myself. I also distinctly remember hearing a somber and severe “oh no” from behind me. I imagine it was my mother. The newscast went on, but I wasn’t really listening anymore. As the video kept replaying, it slowly sunk in that the Challenger had exploded and the crew was gone. The true reality of the event didn’t really register with me until later, when everyone was talking about it – my parents, my teachers, my friends and their parents, the school bus driver, and the checkers and bag boys at the grocery store.

Watching the video now is supremely heart wrenching, but back then, the event didn’t kill my space-loving spirit. If anything, my respect for astronauts and NASA grew even more profound. In the summer of ’86, we went to Washington, D. C. and visited the National Air and Space Museum. I didn’t want to leave (the museum). My interest in planetary science eventually morphed into a hardcore science fiction addiction. Speaking of which, one of the lasting impacts that Challenger had on me was that it solidified a belief that nothing was easy about space travel. So I never cared for sci-fi/space stories set in present times where getting off the Earth was overly simplified, as in “just get in the rocket and go!” Those rose-colored glasses exploded the morning of January 28, 1986.

2 thoughts on “Totally 80s: The Challenger space shuttle”

    1. You youngin’! 😛 Maybe you remember the when a similar thing happened to the Columbia in 2003. (I believe it was returning to Earth rather then leaving it when it exploded.) A couple really bad knocks for our space program.

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