It's interesting that Americans often define themselves in part by what disasters they were witness to, anyone in their twenties remembers where they were when 9/11 happened (and I do as well) but being older, my seminal disaster memory happened thirty years ago today, as CNET's Eric Mack accounts.
Thirty years ago Thursday, I watched in real time, along with millions of other schoolchildren, as my first real heroes died in an awful explosion over the Florida coastline. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster took the lives of seven astronauts on January 28, 1986, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe, who was meant to be the first civilian astronaut sent to space.
While I was in first grade thousands of miles away at the time, Challenger is the first news event I can actually recall experiencing on the day it unfolded. A few years ago, a survey found the Challenger disaster is the fourth most memorable moment in the history of television.
Even three decades later, it represents some sort of a beginning in my memory, a premature loss of a certain kind of innocence.
Two concepts are often introduced in the early school grades with the potential to exponentially expand young minds: space and dinosaurs. I'm now a father of an 8-year-old, so I can confirm this is still the case. Space and dinosaurs are literally otherworldly ideas that hint at the full span of time and the universe. They're the first indications that there's much more to life than cartoons and backyards and school and shopping with Mom.
Dinosaurs are long gone, of course, except for the bones and fuel. But space...that's something that can send a mind into orbit. In a thoroughly explored world, astronauts are like the modern equivalent of 15-century explorers, only possibly cooler. Part of that inherent coolness is that they're just like the adults from daily life, like a mom or a teacher. McAuliffe only served to drive that impression home.
Before Challenger, life was literally all just child's play for me. After Challenger, I was not only aware of the unthinkable breadth of the world and the universe, but also of how brutal and cruel it all can be. I still remember some of the hideous jokes kids and even some remarkably crass adults told in the wake of the tragedy. They're not worth repeating here, but they still make my stomach hurt.
I was among those grade-school kids watching the event on TV, as teachers across America tuned in to watch Christa McAuliffe go into space. We knew that she was going to be teaching us lessons in science from space, for crying out loud, and that was the coolest thing possible that could happen at school for a young science nerd like myself.
And then it all went horrifically wrong as we watched.
I remember talking with ZandarDad about the incident. He told me about the Apollo 1 fire that happened back in 1967 when he was a teenager, when Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chafee all died in a horrible fire that happened during the craft's launch test. When you jump, how high to you go, he asked me. A couple of feet into the air even with all your strength? Now remember that anything powerful enough to launch people into space can be lethal if something goes wrong, he told me.
I learned that day that science can be dangerous, and that the forces humanity are trying to master can be disastrous if uncontrolled.
Oh, yeah, and the jokes the kids told. Ugh. Let's just say they involved a particular brand of soda and the number of shuttle astronauts lost that day.