I lay in bed that morning and listened as the school bus squeaked to a halt, paused and then pulled away into the cold morning. I dozed back off to sleep perhaps thankful that I hadn’t had to climbed the steps onto the cavernous bus filled with cold students only to sit down in a cold seat for the 30-minute ride to school. After a while I got up and went to the living room and stoked up the fire in the fireplace. Other than a small gas heater in the kitchen the fireplace was the only source of heat in the house. Wrapped in a blanket, I crouched down in front of the television. I manually turned the dial flipping through all 13 channels. Soap operas, talk shows, commercials, The Price is Right. I turned the dial again. In mid-commercial the screen went blue for a few seconds and flickered white. Then a newsman appeared with a special report. And there it was. The Space Shuttle Challenger racing up into the sky and disappearing behind a giant orange, fiery ball. The explosion had just happened minutes earlier the newsman said, introducing the replay that revealed fuel rockets at full blast twisting wildly away from the explosion. The TV cameras panned as gently streaming white tendrils of smoke marked pieces of debris that silently fell through the blue sky and into the Atlantic Ocean.
The Space Shuttle Challenger accident occurred at 11:38 AM Eastern Time, 73 seconds after launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The explosion was caused by a rubber O-ring that had become brittle from below freezing temperatures on the launch pad. After liftoff the ring didn’t seal as designed and plumes of super-heated flames from the booster rocket compromised the adjoining external fuel tank.
The shuttle launch had been all over the news in the previous months. New Hampshire school teacher Christa McAuliffe was set to become “The First Teacher in Space.” NASA had hoped to use the launch to revive a space program in which the American public had lost interest. The Challenger launch was intended to be a new stepping stone into space exploration and the advent of ordinary citizens becoming space travelers. There was even talk of Big Bird from Sesame Street joining a Challenger flight. Now, the Challenger, twice as long as a school bus was on the TV screen disappearing into a vapor.
Immediately, I was drawn into the drama of the event like nothing before. With each passing second I might learn if the astronauts were dead or alive. Could anyone survive an explosion like that? Surely they had parachutes was a thought that I pondered crouched in front of the television struggling to grasp the situation.
After a while the final seconds of a recording began playing over the video- the finals words between mission control and the astronauts.
“Challenger go at throttle up,” was the command given from flight control.
“Roger, go at throttle up” was the response from Challenger Commander Francis Scobee. Then it was gone.
I sat watching for hours that day as details of the astronauts lives were reported; their identities, life stories and, as was to become known, the family they left behind. Then the president was on the television later that night bidding them farewell. “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God."
The next day at school I walked around in a stunned state while all the other students were laughing and cutting up as if nothing had happened. How could they act like that, I thought, after such a tragedy. They were just being kids that hadn't watched for hours as the event played out on television. That day at school the Challenger explosion played on a loop in my mind with the words “Go at throttle up” repeating over and over.
Six Astronauts and a teacher died in the Challenger disaster. They are; Ellison Onizuka, Greg Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair, and Christa McAuliffe.