Last year on this date over at the Volokh Conspiracy people were discussing where they were when they found out the Challenger space shuttle had exploded twenty years earlier. Back in 1986 people were saying it would be like the Kennedy assassination, the kind of seminal event that would forever become etched into the memories of everyone old enough to have been aware of it.
Suffice it to say, on retrospect I think such predictions may have overstated its impact. September 11th has clearly become a much more encompassing historical watershed. But for those of us who were schoolchildren in 1986 the Challenger disaster did leave an indelible mark.
There are a couple of reasons for this. One of which is that the space shuttle was our technology. We’d read in our textbooks about rockets and going to the moon, but all that happened before our time. The space shuttle, on the other hand, was something new, and something that came into being just as we came to be aware of the world around us. For people my age in particular the space shuttle program began just as we were starting school. I remember watching those first several launches and landings on tv, back then carried by every network channel pre-empting every regular show, very aware of how historic it all was. In fact, at only five years old or so it was really the first, major historic thing that had ever happened during my lifetime, or at the very least it was the first one I was ever so aware of. While other geo-political world events can be complicated to understand, even for grown-ups, space travel is a subject that kids can easily establish a pretty comprehensive mastery in. Just as every kindergartener knows more about dinosaurs than most adults combined, for kids it’s easy to know all about stars and planets and rockets and intuitively understand why it’s all important.
Another reason why the Challenger in particular would have been so easily lodged in our memories is because it was the mission to put a teacher into space. Who could be more important to a kid than a teacher? Teachers were major figures in our kid-universes, probably second in importance only to our parents or perhaps also the President himself. Making a teacher an astronaut was more than making just some person an astronaut; it was making someone from our world an astronaut, and of course we had a vested pride in her success.
So of course we would remember it, because we were all paying such close attention.
Not that we were all watching it, of course. It launched on a school day. While some kids in other schools apparently were brought to assemblies to watch it, my sixth grade class was not. We had a normal class day, including the usual lining up to go to gym or art class or something. It was while we were all lined up waiting to leave the classroom that we found out about it. The teacher had earlier sent another student to the janitors’ office on an errand, and they were apparently listening to news of it on the radio while he was there. He then came back and announced to us, point blank, “The space shuttle blew up.”
That was what he said, so we naturally started asking all sorts of questions he couldn’t answer because that’s all he knew. The biggest one, though, was, what does that mean, “blew up”? Was the shuttle on the ground? In the air? Were people on it? Were they alive? It wasn’t until several hours later that we were able to get these answers.
I went home that afternoon and watched the coverage intently. It was incredibly sad, but I defeated the sadness by focusing on the science. I wanted to know why this happened, what went wrong. To me, despair could only be defeated by knowledge.
Watching the coverage, I decided that I had some insight into what had happened. As an eleven year old it wasn’t the most scientifically sophisticated theory, but it did bear a certain legitimate insight. Basically it looked to me like the hot exhaust from the engines had backed up into the rockets, like if you hold your thumb under the spout of a kitchen faucet, and therefore caused them to explode. To some degree, given the broken O-ring, that is kind of what happened, with gasses and vapors ending up where they weren’t supposed to be. But that’s neither here nor there. The point is that I was eleven and not particularly likely to solve the problem, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
I went to school and told the librarian that I had a suggestion and wanted to help NASA out by sending it to them. I remember her pulling down an almanac for us to look through to figure out whom to send it to. Eventually we decided that the best person to send it to would be James Beggs, listed as the administrator of NASA.
So I wrote a letter — I think I even went to the extra effort of typing it on a typewriter — and sent it off. I did lose hope I’d ever get a response when I started hearing the name “James Beggs” on the news — connected to an indictment! But it turns out he wasn’t the right guy anyway (he had already stepped down as the administrator before the Challenger disaster), and sure enough, eventually someone did actually write back. I could never quite discern if it was a personal letter or just an incredibly applicable form letter, but it was very validating to me that someone had gone to the effort to thank me for my input.
My memory of the Challenger therefore means remembering so much more than the disaster itself, but I think that’s true for many of us. It means remembering a tragedy, but it also means remembering the hope for the future it represented. A belief that knowledge and science could open the door to a new exciting and better world. This optimism took one between the eyes that day, but the childhood imaginations that the space shuttle had ignited continued to burn in kids’ minds everywhere, and we couldn’t wait for them to take flight again.