Blastr POV: The space shuttle Challenger disaster, 30 years later

Contributed by
Jan 28, 2016, 5:41 PM EST

30 years ago today, the NASA space shuttle Challenger lifted off from Cape Canaverel, Florida, carrying five astronauts and two paylod specialists, one of whom, Christa McAuliffe, was to be the first teacher in space. Seventy-three seconds later, the inspiring image of a rocket leaping for the stars was replaced by that of a blooming smoke and debris cloud as a failed O-ring in the right solid rocket booster led to a structural failure that resulted in the destruction of the shuttle and the death of all hands aboard. 

It was a sobering moment for a generation used to reaching for the outer limits of exploration. To commemorate the moment, Blastr's editors reflect on what the Challenger disaster meant to them; check them out below, and share your own thoughts in the comments.

Carol Pinchefsky: I was crushed by the breakup of the Space Shuttle in 1986, but it took me years to become angry, when I had learned that NASA was using semi-reusable technology rather than fully reusable. (And please note that two out of the five shuttles that flew met with disaster.) I became involved in the space community, both nationally and internationally, and I’ve made friends across the globe because of it. Hell, I’ve met Buzz Aldrin twice. My friend Elizabeth Kennick runs the non-NASA program Teachers in Space, which has been conducting experiments and has plans to send them to space. Please visit the site and make a donation. It’s a good way to remember the day.

Aaron Sagers: As with most space shuttle missions, I was outside, looking to the skies when the Challenger launched. Even though I had seen many during my childhood in Central Florida, the occasion never ceased to amaze me, and it never became routine. I recall the Challenger launch occurring during recess, maybe during second grade. I looked up and saw it happen. The forked plumes of smoke, in particular, are burned into memory. Something was wrong, I knew that much. And my confused 8-year-old self ran to the library, where they were watching the broadcast live on a television. Tears streamed down the faces of students and teachers alike. The loss of the crew felt personal. It not only happened miles away from where I lived, but it is the first major news event I remember in my life. And we all knew Christa McAuliffe, a rockstar teacher who was heading to the stars. She was a teacher like the ones I knew, who dedicated their lives to educating young minds every day; the same teachers I saw weeping that day. The disaster, coupled with another family crisis ongoing at the same time, made me feel vulnerable, exposed. It also made space exploration seem scary. But on the other side of this tragedy, I also remember a resolve to resume the mission of NASA’s space program — and the exhilaration (and anxiety) when the next space shuttle launched, in 1988. I will never forget witnessing this tragedy, and never forget the crew lost on this day 30 years ago. Likewise, I remain aware of the quest these explorers were on, and hope we always remember their loss not as a deterrent, but a reminder to never give up on the mission of space exploration.

Don Kaye: I remember being in class (in college) when the Challenger disaster occurred. There was no Internet back then, no smartphones, but somehow, the news spread throughout the campus. Some friends and I made our way to a student lounge that had a TV. The images were devastating and terrifying. Then, the human cost began to sink in, and of course so much of the focus was on Christa McAuliffe, who was going to become the first teacher in space. The whole thing was so heartbreaking -- for her family, her students, and for the country, which was united in its grief for McAuliffe and her six shipmates, every one of them a hero. I don't attach a lot of subtextual meaning to events like this -- they are simply things that occur, as terrible as they are, and life does eventually go on. But there was a moment that did verge on something like transcendence, when President Reagan spoke about how the Challenger crew "slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God." It remains a poignant epitaph for the brave crew of the Challenger, because touching the face of God -- knowing the unknowable -- is ultimately why they went, and why we must eventually go again.

Evan Hoovler: When 1986 came around, I was seven years old, and my hero was science. The United States was making incredible strides in computing and manufacturing, and the day when we would all be served by bipedal robots seemed incredibly close. The tangible culmination of this was an upcoming mission in which we would send a teacher to space. Sure, astronauts could be seen as people, but I knew teachers. They were normal people that I interacted with everyday. This link was not lost on the education system. For a month before the mission, we had a lesson every day about the Challenger. The media made sure that everyone with a TV knew the human side of Christa McAuliffe. She was the link between the common man and the deities of science. Christa McAuliffe was supposed to serve as the connection between me and my heroes. But, as the tragedy unfolded, the bridge that was built was not between me and the custodians for the miracles of science, but one that linked these godlike denizens to the perils of mortality. A simple mistake in a small part had taken the lives of seven crew, and dashed the soaring pride of an entire nation. The magnificent beast known as modern science was exposed as terrifyingly fragile. And a seven-year-old child put his chemistry set on the shelf for good, that day. He ceased to believe in the miracles of science, deciding his life could be better focused upon the use of humor as a makeshift bandage for the grievous wounds caused by excessive hubris.

Ernie Estrella: I recall that, in the buildup to the day, we learned facts about each crew member and how special it was to see Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian and teacher in space. There were talks of her teaching classes from orbit. Judith Resnik was from Akron, Ohio, which was 20 minutes south of where I grew up. So locally, schools and educators felt personally connected to the mission, and I recall that, even in my limited understanding of the Cold War, you could feel the entire country was invested in the Space Race. Before the liftoff, we were rushed back into the classroom from the playground to watch the launch. At one moment, we were clapping...then, gasps and silence. We didn't know how to react or make sense of what just happened. Some cried, teachers hugged, and it reminded us all of the risks that astronauts took in the name of science, exploration and discovery. It was to be an achievement by man and instead became a teaching moment of a different nature as we were suddenly faced with how to grieve in a moment of sorrow. And in the wake of failure came NASA overcame the tragedy to eventually liftoff again, as the Challenger's O-ring failure led to an engineering fix that has not failed subsequent missions since.

Matt Dorville: Every generation has a tragic moment, and mine actually was the Challenger explosion. People don't remember it but everyone talked about going to the moon, like soon it was going to be a thing that people did. And nothing exemplified that more than Christa McAuliffe, because she was a teacher and everyone, everywhere has known a teacher in their life. That was the thing that stuck out in my mind as my own teacher, Mrs Zimmerman from my second grade class, brought the class into the assembly room and put us in front of the television. I knew that no teacher would go up now, not for a very long time if not ever. That something happened that day where it meant that we wouldn't be sending regular people in space, that space was now for professionals, for astronauts that you heard about on TV but would never meet, and that space and the moon and floating and everything that thing that seemed so obtainable for us all was gone. And they played it over and over, the fire of the explosion, especially.

Joseph Baxter: The last 30 years have provided no shortage of moments transmitted through television airwaves that have altered the way generations see the world. However, one Tuesday morning 30 years ago, a seven-year-old kid in New Jersey laying on the living room couch home sick from school emerged from a nap to catch TV coverage of a momentous space shuttle launch, only to see it abruptly culminate in a fiery explosion, leaving behind only sad, sinking plumes of smoke. He didn’t quite understand the moment’s broader implications related to America’s space program, the Cold War, etc. However, the personal stories, notably of “Teacher in Space,” Christa McAuliffe did resonate and imparted a crucial lesson on both the fleeting nature of life’s wonders and the presence of previously unfathomable levels of bravery.

Jeff Spry: I was living in California at the time and watched the launch live before heading off to work. Being a nerdy kid of the '70s, I was a rocket nut and knew every detail of NASA's Apollo Program and moon landings and had followed all shuttle missions up to that shocking morning. This was back when the mainstream public was actually interested in our manned space program! When the initial explosion and breakup occurred, I was in utter disbelief, like most people, and immediately sensed that a disaster had occurred just after mission control declared them, "Go at throttle up." A deep and profound sadness for this beautiful spacecraft and the brave astronauts aboard descended and I realized the crew compartment must still be intact and part of the smoking debris that was arcing into the blue sky. I was late for work that morning, and sat stunned, choked up, listening to hours of CNN's coverage of the tragedy and recovery efforts, feeling so sorry for not only the astronauts and their families but the ground crew, technicians and scientists involved in the program. Ten years later, I moved to Colorado and would often drive past the old Gates Rubber factory off Interstate 25 near Denver, the company that manufactured the fateful "O-Rings," and vividly recall that sad day for space exploration.

Adam Swiderski: When I was 10 years old, the space program seemed unimpeachable. We had shiny, reusable spacecraft. Astronauts went to the orbital void and back with what, to my child's mind, looked like little effort. A rocket launch was something to be cheered, not feared. All that changed when I and my classmates were gathered into a room by our teachers and told about the Challenger disaster. It's a testament to just how invincible I thought these people and these ships were that, when they said "The space shuttle blew up," all I could conceive was that they meant it had launched, "blown up" into space. It took some time for the reality to sink in, supported by that indelible image of the cloud of smoke and debris where a space-bound shuttle had been only a moment before. It was such a sad day, both because of the tragic death of the astronauts and because it created a wound in our dreams that not even the later-that-year release of SpaceCamp could heal. Would we have sent a human to Mars by this point if Challenger and, later, Columbia, hadn't broadcast on national television the very real dangers of space flight? Hard to say. But I think that, for a generation, it would have seemed much more certain than it does now, and that's a shame.