January 28, 1986 is a day not forgotten by many, but the date has never been ingrained into my conscious. I do recall the events that happened, but the date itself never stuck with me like December 7th or September 11th.
On that day I entered my school and my fifth grade teacher asked us to sit down as she had an important announcement to make. The Challenger shuttle, which for the first time in NASA's short history had a public school teacher on board, never left Earth's atmosphere. She whimpered as she held back tears talking about the tragedy. She then stated that all through the day we would be listening to the radio for further news about the event. Ronald Reagan recorded a message asking for a moment of silence that aired every 20 minutes or so. My educator asked that we stand and hold our hands over our hearts and to keep our mouths shut in respect for the fallen astronauts every time the recording played.
She asked if we had any question, but to her shock there were none. She asked again, the kids looked around at each other, but no one raised their hands. In frustration at our disinterest she went on with the lesson plan with the radio playing in the background. During her instruction the President's message came over the air and she quickly told us to stand and shut up. We did this a few times through out the day, until my classmate Steve finally protested. He made it known that he thought the Challenger disaster was no big deal and that people die of starvation and basic neglect all the time. Our teacher didn't take too kindly to this and harshly reminded him of how he should feel saddened by this event.
I actually kind of agreed with Steve. I use to love books about space and would bury my nose in my NASA childrens' encyclopedia, but I always assumed that reaching out into space was a dangerous one and naively thought this wasn't the first disaster of it's kind. Plus being ordered to do something over and over again in remembrance of anything kind of cheapens it I felt.
I went home and asked my parents questions about the space program and they filled in details of how important events as Sputnik and the first lunar landing really were to the world. Having not been around to witness these historic occasions live my young mind never grasped how everything changed the moment man took his first orbit around the Earth. I watched Regan address the nation via television, and it was quite possibly one of his greatest speeches.
Life went on after Challenger as normal, but as I got older and more educated about recent history I realized how much of a shock it was to the older generation. The space program wasn't just about man's reach beyond the heavens, it also gave them a sense of patriotism whether they knew it or not. Even when missions such as Apollo 13 went terribly the triumph of bringing the men home kept people glued to their black and white televisions praying we never lose someone beyond our atmosphere.
The Challenger explosion came and suddenly man felt small. Not only was the deaths of those seven tragic, but it also reminded us that the race to the stars was still in it's infancy. The thought of anything going wrong was beyond our thoughts when there was a shuttle launch. Sadly those brave astronauts paid a terrible price for attempting to further mankind's knowledge of the universe.
I wish I knew what my parents did earlier that day. Granted I was young and couldn't comprehend some events as well as others, but it kind of pains me to know I didn't, or couldn't grieve immediately.
"The space shuttle is a better and safer rocket than it was before the Challenger accident." - Sally Ride.
Challenger: 25 years later, America's wound still aches