The Space Shuttle Challenger went down 25 years ago today, killing all seven astronauts on board, and scarring school children forever.
American kids were watching the launch live in schools across the nation because of the presence of Payload Specialist Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire. She’d been selected out of 11,000 applicants for NASA’s Teacher in Space program. (Also aboard were Commander Dick Scobee, Pilot Michael Smith, Mission Specialists Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ronald McNair, and Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis.)
But it was McAuliffe’s presence that had schools across the nation tuned in live that January morning, including one particular class of third graders.
Like the rest of the nation, we mistakenly believed the shuttle had “exploded” (it disintegrated under aerodynamic following mechanical failure, and the signature Challenger plumes are actually gas and vapor). We were horrified at what we’d
seen, and our teacher, who only turned the TV on in the classroom for a Friday drawing show, was horrified at how badly things had turned out the one time she broke her pattern. (She’d also applied for McAuliffe’s position.)
The school yard that day was full of talk of kicking the Russkie’s asses. “The Russians blew up the space shuttle!” many of our friends were yelling, convinced those freedom-hating Soviets, years from having their own Space Shuttle, had sabotaged ours.
More practically, we dealt with the tragedy by immortalizing it in crayon. A drawing that still exists, amazingly, portrays every step of the disaster, the names and ages of all seven
dead astronauts, and the ominous title “Challenger The Adventure That did not begin.”
Challenger was not done with school kids just yet. Schools named after McAuliffe flourished through out the nation over the next decade.
After Challenger, the Space Shuttle fleet was grounded for two and a half years, until the launch of Space Shuttle Discovery in 1988. It would be grounded again for a similar period of time following the Columbia’s disintegration during re-entry in 2003.
The final Space Shuttle mission is planned for this April. It may or may not be under the charge of Commander Mark Kelly, who is scheduled to lead it, but is currently spending his time at the side of his recovering wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. NASA has named a back up commander in case Kelly is unable to train in time.