Friday, January 28, 2011


Now we would all know within seconds. Thousands of people would tweet it at once. Your cell phone would pick up that insistent buzz that never means good news. But this was before all that, and I made it out of class and across campus and almost all the way to work before somebody on the street said that Challenger had broken in the sky.

I laughed. It had to be the punch line to some absurd joke, and I had just missed the setup. I kept walking, toward the college newspaper where I worked, and then I saw another one of the editors. As soon as I saw her eyes, I knew. She grabbed my arm and said: "Call everybody."

College can be a wonderful bubble. Tragedy is getting dumped by your girlfriend. Terror is a test you didn't study for. On Jan. 28, 1986, I was a senior at the University of Georgia and nothing really bad had ever happened to me. I was 22 but I was still a boy.

We had to put out a paper. I remember ripping updates off the old wire machine, thinking maybe this version would say it was all a mistake. The photos showed a corkscrew of smoke, like something a pilot would do to show off. But at the top of the plume, where the space shuttle was supposed to be, there was nothing.

It's weird, the things that turn you from boy to man, from girl to woman. By the time my 20s were over I was on my fourth town in my third job, had gone through a couple of hard breakups, my dad had died, and I got cancer and got rid of it. I was a grown man.

And when I trace it back I think I started feeling grown on that day 25 years ago, when all of a sudden my little college newspaper job was important, because something terrible had happened, and people were expecting us to help make sense of it, and give them something to hold on to and remember it by.

That's still, basically, my job today.

All of this is really just a way to open the door for you. If you remember that day, step in and tell your story.


Ken said...

I was city editor of The Evening Independent in St. Petersburg Fla. We ripped up the final edition to include the story. We had on our staff an excellent reporter named David Olinger, who had come to us from the Monitor in Concord, NH, where Christa McAuliff was from. Dave had written extensively about her. Dave looked in shock, but agreed to get on the next plane to Boston and cover the story from up there. His subsequent stories were wonderful.

Julie said...

I worked for a small daily newspaper at the time and one of my duties was to monitor the national newswires. I remember the bells ringing and one or two words coming over at a time, then a sentence fragment, followed minutes later by a hurried sentence, then a haphazard paragraph. It was very surreal and chilling. Took a while to piece together what had happened. So many people felt an emotional connection to Christa McAuliff, a beloved teacher actually taking a field trip into space for every classroom in the country to follow.

Jumper said...

Here is how it was for me:

John Hartness said...

I was twelve. Here's how it felt.

Matt Tullis said...

I was in the fourth grade and standing in the lunch line. Jason Knight, who was always causing trouble, came up and told us that the shuttle blew up. We thought he was joking, like, yeh, it blew up, into outer space.

When we came in from recess and went to science, Mrs. Orr was in tears and that endless loop of the explosion was playing on a television. We watched it the rest of the day, as I recall, a bunch of 10-year-olds not really knowing what to make of it.

Jessica said...

I was five and do not remember the actual event, but do remember seeing it over and over on the news, not really knowing what I was looking at.

chupacabra said...

I was a senior at Watauga High up in Boone. We were planning to be there at this launch, but for reasons I don't recall changed our trip to later in the year.

My physics teacher had tried out for the program so we were all following the whole first teacher in space deal very closely. On the day of the launch we had planned this big school assembly. After school the previous day we had put a tape outline of the shuttle living space on the floor in front of the cafeteria.

Then it snowed and school was canceled. I don't know if that was good or bad really. I was still asleep like a proper teenager home from school because of snow and my mom who was also snowed in woke me up to tell me.

I can't imagine what a scene it would have been for the entire high school to see it live from school, but then again we would have been together instead of isolated in our homes watching it all in horror.

We still went on that school trip to NASA later that year. I still remember seeing the 7 small American flags they had out as a memorial.

Weird that it seems like so long ago and and only yesterday at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I was in a dance studio teaching a class as a graduate TA in Washington DC when I first heard the news.

With the exception to John F. Kenndy's assassination (I was a baby), I've been in a dance studio somewhere in the world when a major news event has taken place in my life.

Name the event and I can name the dance studio I was in or at least the one I was headed to or out of that day.

Neil Armstrong lands on the moon? Studio in Messenna NY. Vietnam War? Studio in Messenna NY. Nixon Resigns? Studio in Utica NY. Iran Hostage Crisis? Studio in Middletown CT. John Lennon Shot? Studio in New Haven CT. President Reagan shot? Studio in New Haven CT. First Space Challenger Flight? Studio in London England. Hurricane Alicia? Studio in London England. Reagan re-elected president? Studio in Amherst MA. AIDS makes headlines? Studio in Amherst MA. Tianemen Square/Exxon Valdez/ Berlin Wall demolished? Studios in Washington DC. Nelson Mendela released? Studio in Maryland. First computer I bought? Studio in State College PA. First child born? In CMC hospital on the phone moments after giving birth interviewing for a job to teach in a dance studio. 9/11? Studio in Charlotte NC.

First "Hooters" opens? I can't answer this one.

Spending my 40th birthday in a dance studio was a really good day.

Marcia said...

I was 9 years old when Armstrong walked upon the moon and I remember that day vividly. My sister and I used to reenact his first step, tried to like the taste of Tang, and imagined what it would be like to be there...looking down at earth. Fast forward from that fateful day in oldest child was in 1st grade when the Challenger disaster hit. She still remembers the images she saw and the feeling of shock. She now has a 6 year old son in 1st grade and shared with him her memories of what took place that day. I am thankful she remembers and appreciates and shares this with him....

robw222 said...

I was living in Orlando at the time and planned to step outside with my co-workers to watch the liftoff. There had been one other launch previous to this one since we moved there from NC but this would be the first one i would have the opportunity to see. I do remember how cold it was that morning. Coming from the mountains, it was never cold enough there to even bother with a winter coat, but it was definitely frigid that day. We had the radio coverage on the PA system at work. I was delayed by a phone call and was on my way out the door when the radio announcers describing the liftoff said something was wrong. They understood right away what had happened.

I remember for hours afterward the contrail remained in the
sky, slowly dissipating. The whole community was in shock
afterwards. I don't think anyone ever imagined something
like this could happen.

Still very sad to think about it. God bless the families.

Jim said...

I was almost there. I was in a business seminar in Orlando at the Hyatt Grand Cypress. I had actually considered going over to Titusville on the morning of the 28th for the launch since the seminar agenda that morning was mainly just a sales pitch for the company conducting the event. A long-time space enthusiast, I was fortunate enough to have been able to attend 7 of the first 8 space shuttle launches - all from special viewing areas at Kennedy Space Center thanks to an uncle who worked for NASA in Houston. It had been a couple years since I had seen one.

In the end, I opted not to go because it was forecast to be so cold that morning - in the high teens or 20s in Orlando, as I recall. I got out of the meeting and went out to the airport shuttle bus, and they had the radio playing. That's where I heard the news. I was shocked and devastated.

As we were driving to the airport on 528 East, there was only one cloud in the sky - due east towards the space center area. That cloud was the large condensation cloud that always forms over the launch pad after a Shuttle launch. It was a surreal feeling - one I will never forget.

Recently, in my current job as a magazine editor, I've again been fortunate to see the four most recent launches - STS-129, 130, 131, and 132 - this time from the NASA Press site only 3 miles from the launch pad. I plan to make it back for the final three launches this year by Challenger's sisters - Discovery on Feb 24, Endeavor in April, and Atlantis this summer.

KHAZAD said...

I was a freshman in college when it happened, but living at home, working a part time job, singing in a rock band, and taking afternoon classes. When I woke up that morning, the living room TV was on. The old TV had a volume control which slid from left to right. I slid it to mute on the way to the bathroom.

While brushing my teeth, I walked back into the living room, and saw the shuttle getting ready to lift off. I wondered why they were still showing these, they had seemed to become routine, but despite my cynical young thoughts, I brushed my teeth more slowly, the kid in me waiting for the launch.

With no volume, I still do not know whether it was live or perhaps the first replay. No matter, it was live for me. My toothbrush fell on the floor with my cynicism, and I rushed to the phone to call my mom and my friends.

Those were the days before cell phones, home computers, rss feeds and automatic alerts. A few minutes later, the phone system collapsed under the weight of all the phone calls, and all I could get was an odd busy signal. I turned up the volume and sat there alone watching the coverage. With this splash of reality in my teenage life, I felt at once like a child, and oddly enough, for the first time, felt like an adult.

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