It was January 28, 1986. I was eight years old. I don’t know why I wasn’t at school that day, but I remember being at home when the phone call came.
For some reason, when I think back to it, I keep seeing that big beige receiver in my mother’s hand. It was a rotary phone, hanging on the kitchen wall in our second floor rental in Stafford Springs, Connecticut. The corkboard beside the phone was papered with notes and numbers. The wallpaper was laden with busy illustrations of fruit, baskets, and flowers, a riot of images that filled the room beside the kitchen table. The long, spiral phone cord looped low and stretched out beneath the plastic housing. It was my father calling from work. He had been pulled out of a meeting in New Haven and given some terrible news.
I don’t remember my mother’s reaction on the phone, but a sense of urgency pervades the memory. She rushed to the living room and turned on the news. I stood there with her, watching the video replay on our little polymer-clad TV.
It was the early days of cable news, and for our family, the early days of cable television, which we had gotten just the year before. We were not yet bombarded with a 24/7 news cycle full of the horrors that have now so desensitized us to loss. Unfiltered and unprepared, the tragedy of what was happening spooled out before us live, and it hit like a gut punch. My mother started crying as she watched, and as she put her arm around me, I did too. My father’s meeting was cancelled, and everyone from his office was sent home. Back then, a story like this was more than just a report. It mattered.
We came together as a nation to mourn.
All those lives lost. All the excitement turned to tears.
The Challenger explosion would come to stand out as one of the most powerful images from my childhood. It holds its place on the shelf of memories alongside the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The Tienanmen Square massacre. The opening salvo of the Gulf War.
As a young boy, I was enchanted with all things pertaining to outer space. Over my young life, I gave plenty of thought to the idea of being an astronaut, but every time I heard how much math was involved, I blanched. (I’d much rather write about space than calculate a trajectory through it.)
Seeing that explosion, watching that shuttle tear apart, irrevocably ending not just the mission but the lives and dreams of all those aboard — it was my first real inkling that space exploration was extremely dangerous stuff. That the line between life and death was as thin as the layers of fabric protecting astronauts from the inhospitable vacuum and impossible cold outside their suits.
When I saw the film Gravity, I was reminded of the Challenger. It captured that same feeling of something beautiful gone so wrong, the utterly unforgiving nature of space, of orbital velocity, of strapping a rocket to your back and heading for the stars.
The film, of course, played out in digital high resolution, unlike the grainy analog news footage from 1986. It’s an odd thing to realize that the computers used to create 21st Century special effects are exponentially more powerful than the ones that powered the actual space missions of the 20th Century. Advances in materials science, processing power, structural engineering, and even space suit design have traversed light years in just a few decades.
When I read about the successes (and trials) of Virgin Galactic, about new missions to the moon and even Mars, I can’t help but get excited. NASA may be grounded for now, but the potential for space travel, whether public or private, is virtually untapped.
Challenger reminds us that the dream of exploring and conquering space is a risky one. But with so many wonders to discover, I believe that it’s a risk worth taking. The brave astronauts who died aboard the Challenger no doubt thought so. I’m certain that not a single one of them would have wanted their tragedy to stop mankind from reaching for the stars.
Hope springs eternal in the promise of the great beyond. For the astronauts of Challenger, I pray that they rest in peace.
Originally published January 28, 2014. Updated for the 30th anniversary.