Challenger: Learning of Tragedy in Real Time


Background book “We Interrupt This Broadcast” by Joe Garner. Mision patch of STS-51-L with crew names. Note the apple, symbolizing McAulfiffe’s teacher status.

It was supposed to be a really big deal; weeks of buildup, anticipation, and excitement, all culminating in the whole school stopping to watch the launching of Space Shuttle Challenger. With the publicizing of Christa McAuliffe as a school teacher going into space, NASA had hit on something exciting for children and the public both. With the enthusiasm for space flight having waned from the Apollo moon mission days, the almost routine space shuttle program needed some excitement and it had it with this mission.

None of that back story mattered to the kids of Frametown Elementary School. Their excitement was in the fact that class would be interrupted to watch TV, very unusual at the time, and in getting to watch something happen instead of just reading about or seeing it in pictures. Stories were written, projects done, pictures of the shuttle and crew – especially McAuliffe – were placed in the room to be ready for the big day.

And then it snowed…a lot…which cancelled school.

As rare as watching live events at school was at the time, being upset at a snow day was the rarest of occurrences, yet in this case it happened. My parents, being teachers, were also home. But somehow, I almost forgot about the Challenger launch without the pomp and circumstances that had excited us so much. In fact, I was watching a cartoon when coverage broke in about something having gone tragically wrong. I remember getting my father to explain why all three of the channels we had were showing the same thing.

It was my first real memory of breaking news, and my introduction into processing events outside of myself in real-time. Whereas today I multitask, consume media while doing other things, and purposefully keep abreast of current events, to a child, learning that there is a big world that doesn’t even know you exist is a grand moment of realization. As with many people, it was a tragedy that brought on this idea, unformed but palpable, that something important was going on that I didn’t, or couldn’t, understand.


Challenger moments after explosion.

My most vivid memory of that day, besides that now-immortalized awful image of diverging smoke trails and debris where Challenger should have been, is my father patiently spending time trying to explain the unexplainable. Learning of tragedy in real-time is traumatic and formative for children. But to parents and adults, it is an awful task of balancing harsh facts against childhood innocence. Seven lives lost in a billion-dollar shuttle program, live before an audience of millions, was far too much reality for a child’s mind. Yet the images made dealing with it unavoidable. History teacher that my father was, he did his best to explain that tragedy, while awful, is inevitable, frequent, and ever-present in our story.

Days of remembrance, such as this anniversary of the Challenger disaster, remind us that along with the memories and thoughts of what we felt comes a responsibility to teach the past and the lessons they have in them. Not just for recording the events, but in explaining to those who didn’t live through them what it was like. It is vital we do so, giving the next generation a baseline for their own inevitable processing of tragedies that have not yet, but certainly will, occur. Nothing prepares you fully, but history can at least give us a point of reference when disaster unmoors us into feelings of helplessness, horror, and frustration.

For my part, my father’s words on tragedy and loss came back to my mind on many other days when tragedy and death invaded our lives through media. But beyond the words are the feelings, emotions, and the memory of a tragedy that taught a lesson. Adult me can read and learn many of the questions child me had that day. Years later, having the opportunity to talk to one of the NASA engineers who was at a panel that day and worked on the investigation, most of those questions about the people and how they died that day were answered with a penetrating stare and a “you don’t want to know.” An unacceptable and horrifying answer, but truthful. Remembering the unimaginable is responsibility not asked for, but a burden that must be borne.

When President Reagan addressed the nation that night I sat with my parents, watching along with the rest of the nation. It felt like he, perfectly delivering speechwriter Peggy Noonan’s finest work, was talking directly to me.

“And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.”

It still does, and it always will, if we process tragedy and use it to spur us on to greater heights. If we understand the potential costs but do so anyway.

Like they did.

For that, we honor them and their memory.

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Born and raised in West Virginia, Andrew has since lived and traveled around the world several times over. Though frequently writing about politics out of a sense of duty and love of country, most of the time he would prefer discussions on history, culture, occasionally nerding on aviation, and his amateur foodie tendencies. He can usually be found misspelling/misusing words on Twitter @four4thefire.

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9 thoughts on “Challenger: Learning of Tragedy in Real Time

  1. I was playing hooky from school, and I while I am pretty sure I wasn’t watching it but whatever I was watching was interrupted to show the disaster. Over and Over and… It was pretty intense, enough so that I remember it years later.

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  2. I now know pretty much why that happened. Being an engineer, I figured that no, I really did want to know. But that was years after the incident, during which I was an adult.

    I was right, too. It’s a story that’s familiar, horrifying and banal all at once. And even though this failure has a very human side to it, I am sure that nobody wanted that outcome. In fact, all involved worked hard to stay away from disasters like that, and yet it happened.

    In some ways, I endorse Reagan/Noonan’s message. It’s always going to be like this sometimes. Sometimes stuff goes wrong. But as a person who might have been responsible for some of that stuff, that’s not nearly good enough.

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  3. When I was about 8 I was *obsessed* with astronauts. I had 8×10 glossy photos an unvle had given me from the Mercury and Apollo missions and had Very Strong Opinions about Michael Collins being the greatest unsung hero in US history.

    I also had read about every disaster in the space race and thus wasn’t really all that surprised when Challenger blew up when I was 14. I was kinda surprised that people were so shocked, actually.

    I don’t know what this says about me, really.

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    • When I was about 8 I was *obsessed* with astronauts.

      Oh, man, me too! And my kid obsession was during the Apollo era leading up to the first moon landing. I built the styrene models, made a scrapbook, and my folks indulged me with some kind of kid book series on space and science. My answer to “what do you want to be when you grow up?” was always astronaut. I have a memory of watching the first moon walk on a B/W tv (with Walter Cronkite natch).

      And I was at the Bell Labs campus taking a course in quality control and watching the launch coverage live during a break of some sort (lunch?) with a bunch of AT&T engineers when the Challenger blew up. It was all rather traumatic for a bunch of tech heads.

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      • I was in the lobby at the former AT&T General Departments building in New Jersey watching the launch just before lunch. I had given some sort of technical talk to the management types and was waiting to grab a bite before heading back south. As a side effect, it really burned the awful purple-and-orange color scheme used in that lobby into my memory.

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  4. The engineer in charge of developing the SSMEs was surprised that we never lost one to a main engine explosion. The RS-25 engines violently blew up all the time during test and development, yet what doomed the Challenger was one of the trusty solids.

    Wayne Hale (the NASA flight director who had to say “Lock the doors” after Columbia was lost) has an interesting post about the enduring lessons of Challenger.

    He also has a lot of other interesting posts, not that he has a non-interesting one, such as How We Nearly Lost Discovery, which suffered a major foam separation after the loss of Columbia. We often almost lost a mission, and sometimes they didn’t know how close a mission came to disaster until after it landed, such as STS-93.

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