On January 28th, 1986, the United States manned space program ground to a sudden halt with the deaths of seven people. Their names were Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judy Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.
I was just shy of four years old when the Challenger exploded. I remember seeing it on the TV. I had no idea what it was, of course, and I’d basically forgotten about it. I have a very old memory, though, far older than average. I remember a lot from being a toddler, which is perhaps why I interact with toddlers a little different than most adults. A lot of times, something will trigger an old memory, and while I can’t say it’s like reliving it, I’ll get a little lost for a few seconds as I try to sort it out. It’s the closest I’ve gotten to how PTSD flashbacks are described.
The most vivid was when, as a teenager, I was reading old space and science magazines and came across an image of the explosion. It’s a famous photo, but in those days before the ubiquitous World Wide Web, you could be a space geek and still miss a lot.
I was fifteen, but for just a bare second I was four years old again, seeing that image on TV and not understanding why my mother was so upset. I might just be the youngest person in the world to remember that day, even if I didn’t have the context for it.
You can hear the stunned silence as the explosion occurs. My wife watched it just now for the first time, and she flinched, gasped, and took a half-step back, even though she knew exactly what was about to happen. Imagine how it was to see it live.
Years ago, I had to memorize a poem for a talent show. I wanted to do one about the Challenger mission. My mother insisted I do “No Man is an Island.” So I did both, tying them together. I never knew the Challengers, but they’re still close to my heart. During the bit in the middle at that talent show, I tried to explain what happened to those present; the adults remembered, but some my peers hadn’t even heard of it.
I tried to find that old Challenger poem; it was on a poster I got from the NASA Goddard gift shop, but I can’t find it now. I even called my father back on the East Coast to see if I’d left it there, but no dice. I can’t find it online either.
So instead, I’ll end with President Reagan’s own tribute to them, broadcast on that same day more than three decades ago.