Friday January 28 will mark the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster in Florida, when the Space Shuttle exploded only 73 seconds after it was launched. It was a disaster that unfolded in full view of the public, and me as well.
The disaster was one of those times that marks history, like the assassination of President Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. You always remember where you were and what you were doing when it happened. It also leaves you with such feelings of sadness and loss for what “might have been.”
Like many I remember the Challenger explosion like it was yesterday and those sad feelings have never gone away. The sight of the explosion brought tears to my eyes then, and it still does to this day when it replays on television or appears in photographs. 25 years ago I was working for a major Florida newspaper just an hour or two away from the Kennedy Space Center and I was home on my lunch hour. As I was walking to my car to return to work a neighbor was outside looking up into the sky and said to me “look, is that the Space Shuttle?” I looked up, and having seen so many smoke plumes from launches before, this one looked quite different. So I told my neighbor I didn’t think so because it looked wrong. Neither of us had any idea why, but that was that.
When I got into my car I remembered that there was supposed to be a launch that day, and I had a sinking feeling. When I turned on the radio I got the full terrible story and drove back to the newspaper with tears in my eyes.
Such a sad occasion was even worse because along with those six astronauts was a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe making an historic first flight. Her family was there in the bleachers watching the launch live, and seeing her mother’s face looking up shielding her eyes from the sun with a questioning look on her face has remained in my memory all these years.
Because I worked for a newspaper, those feelings had to be put aside because there was so much work to be done, so we all did our best at the time, but it was extremely difficult.
I had similar feelings after hearing about the shootings in Tucson two weeks ago. That hopeless feeling, and what might have been.
Those feelings never truly go away.
Michael J. Smith