Challenger and the Explosion
Sitting in class as the shuttle with the teacher exploded.
I will never forget that day as long as I live. It had such a strong impact on me at 18 years old, the gut-punch of watching teacher Christa McAuliffe’s shuttle explode all at once. We were all so excited that day to watch the first teacher, nay woman, go into space that we called it her shuttle. My fellow students were around me, and all of us had been watching raptly as the first woman in space went up…then got blown up. The collective gasp of my fellow students, the eyes that widened and the breaths that were held, including my own, I will never forget it.
I remember feeling unreal, that I did not really see what we had all just seen in living bold color. We had been allowed to watch the launch for a real treat of unusual proportions in my English class. We were all excited, knowing a teacher, much less a woman, was going into space, we had to see it and cheer for her. We did. In those first few moments as it launched, a high arc up and to the left, we cheered. We clapped. Then we fell silent. The tears came immediately as shock turned to acceptance, and we all cried.
We didn’t cry just because of shock, either.
My friends and I all around my classroom were crying for those who had just lost an excellent teacher, parent, wife, sister…we were sorrowed by the loss of a bright and beautiful person who dared to explore space. I had just turned 18 a few weeks before this happened, and was daring to believe I could someday do something as great as that. My friends Christine and Heather were on my left and right side respectively and we didn’t even look at each other, just at the screen in stunned silence as we watched the shuttle break apart and fall back to earth.
There were no words at first. The classroom, after the initial gasps of disbelief and shock, was silent. More than I’d ever heard silence before. Not even our teacher, Mr. Matthews, could seemingly move or speak. We couldn’t believe what we had just seen. There was a TV person speaking, but we didn’t hear a single thing he said. None of us did. We were simply watching as a dream spiraled down to earth in a slow but frantic stream of metal pieces and fire. And I’m here to tell you, there was not a single dry eye in the classroom, not a one, not even from “Stone Cold Matthews”, as our teacher was called. Stoic on a good day, his expression never really changed much…until that day.
It changed that morning.
January 28, 1986 will live forever in my memory. Partly because of what that explosion did reveal to all of us that day. Stone Cold was no longer Stony Faced, much less Cold. He stared, as we all did, at the screen, not hearing so much of the announcer’s comments as one tear rolled down his thin right cheek, then another, and another. We were all crying great tears, saddened by the sudden and violent loss of who we, my friends and I, considered a great role model. We had a conversation as Stone Cold dismissed us early from the class. On my way out of the doors, the last to leave as the rest of our class silently and shuffly made their way around me, I turned back to look at Mr. Matthews. His face was no longer stoic but deeply sad, his hands clasped on the desk in front of him. And feeling he’d rather be let alone, I caught up to Heather and Christine.
“What a horrible thing!” Heather was not crying but seemed angry.
I walked, silent, beside my two best friends across the concrete sidewalks, not seeing the cafeteria to my left nor the main office in front of me. Heather was horrified. She had just gotten a job with…Lockheed Aerospace and Technology in a nearby town.
“I still can’t believe it!” Christine was still crying, the most sensitive of my good friends. “Her poor kids! Her husband! Her mom, oh my God.” She wiped tears away.
I couldn’t say anything.
What I was feeling was too intense and too angry to feel free to express, I thought. I walked beside them in silence a few moments before Heather, who had been ranting about how unfair it was, and how sad, turned to me, stopping her stride across the windy and cloudy complex that was the center of school.
“Aren’t you gonna say something, hey?” She had her hands on her hips and was staring at me, who was staring at the ground till she spoke. I looked up at her, and I was still crying, albeit silently. Her normally soft face looked hard and angrily at me. Until she saw my face when I looked up. My tears were still falling, slower, but still there, and we all did something we had never done before; group hug.
As I withdrew from the embrace, I looked around us and it was as if the whole world had suddenly come back into focus. I saw all around the courtyard we were in the little groups of four, five, or more in group hugs, all crying. It was like a dream had ended for so many of us. Please understand that in the months leading up to the launch, this was all we had talked about me and my friends. Hell, everyone was talking about the first woman to go to space, a teacher who was gracious, kind and funny, a sparkle in her eye you couldn’t miss and an infectious laugh in the few televised interviews she gave. We were all thrilled for her and we had dreams that someday maybe we’d all be like that.
Here’s what changed the most…
We stopped talking about space travel. We stopped talking about flying or going into space. We stopped mocking Mr. Matthews and listened with respect, for he was changed after that day and drastically so. We wouldn’t talk about Christa or the loss of her so violently. We started listening more and better to everyone around us. We didn’t know exactly why it hit us all so hard as to change our selfish, self-absorbed selves so much, but it did. Christine, who hadn’t taken her SAT’s for college suddenly did so the very next day, and came out of it with her pick of schools. Heather finished her credits really fast, sooner than expected, and went to work for Lockheed. And I?
I went home. I listened to my aunts and their condolences and for the first time it really struck me how lucky I was to have my family. Literally, for the very first time ever, I was so grateful. I worked harder in school. I took on vocational classes as well. I spent more time with friends when I wasn’t working or in class. There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on about the Challenger explosion that changed all of us that day, me and my two best friends. I know what it was now, and it seems silly in this day and age to even mention what it was.
We watched what we thought was a dream die. It wasn’t a dream. It was a reality that died for us, or so it seemed. So a little dream and a little reality came crashing in on our consciousness violently, unexpectedly, and scared all of us to pieces. But it had its benefits, and in the long run, that launch, that loss, pierced all of us together. We, in that classroom that day, me and twenty other students, cried. Buckets. We, none of us, felt invincible any longer. I know this because when we returned to class the following day, we had only one assignment for the rest of that week: our Stone Cold Matthews said we had to write an essay about it, at least 500 but no more than 1,000 words.
We had little to say, yet also much to say
Seems like a paradox, but we did. Most essay’s turned in were not much more than 500 words, but they spoke volumes about us. And the general consensus was; life has risk. Risk is worth taking. But anything can happen in a New York minute and nothing is certain. I think that’s what was kind of freakish for all of us back then; nothing is certain. Plan that future. Do that thing you want to do but always remember, nothing is guaranteed to go your way. I was already in the midst of a depression I’d been battling for years, and this didn’t help matters much for me. But ironically all I can remember really thinking was how brave Christa McAuliffe was; how great her effort to be out there doing things, regardless of risk. That life was nothing without risk.
I’m grateful, still, for what I learned that day. And while I haven’t kept in touch with Heather or Christine, I can tell you that they did both go on and forward to better things in life. We lost touch when I left California in 1988, but we all learned that day something about ourselves.
The world is bigger than just us.
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