We all have moments that are burned into our minds. Moments that we remember as though they happened yesterday. Some are happy moments, like weddings and births; others are dark, like 9/11. One of my earliest such moments was January 28, 1986.
I still recall how a shuttle launch caused national excitement. How teachers would build up to these moments with hopeful voices, stopping our lessons in time to roll in TV carts so we could watch live. Launches were a big deal--and no one wanted to miss them.
But that day, I wasn't at school. I was home with the flu, recovering under my Granny's watchful nurse's eye. I remember it was cold and gray outside. Colorless. And I remember Gran coming in the living room and switching the channel over to a major network that was broadcasting live from Florida, where the Challenger was preparing to launch with its crew of seven. I remember the astronauts: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe, the woman who would teach children all over the country as she floated among the stars.
I remember the talk of the chill in the air, of the promised hope of a teacher in space. Waiting for the astronauts to board the shuttle, watching them wave and smile. The countdown. The liftoff. I remember thinking that the giant plume of smoke didn't look it had before. It looked menacing, not victorious.
I remember my 11-year old gut telling me that something was horribly wrong, watching Gran glued to the TV. And I remember the newscasters confirming what my gut already knew. I remember feeling sucker-punched.
The State of the Union was that evening, and Reagan instead gave a moving address. We watched, and something new was burned to memories everywhere:
"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. 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."
I remember that the President addressed the kids who had been watching.
Over the coming weeks, I would collect news articles, magazines and whatever else I could find, devouring all the information I could. I even rigged up a scrapbook of sorts, out of construction paper tied with yarn, to memorialize the event, to mourn astronauts I didn't know.
I don't recall ever watching another live launch in school again.
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