I was busy with work yesterday and when that happens I sometimes lose track of things. All day long, I kept looking at the calendar and wondering why January 28 seemed so familiar. Was it someone’s birthday? Anniversary? It wasn’t until the evening, after dinner, that an odd coincidence triggered the memory of the event: It was on January 28, 1986 that the shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing all 7 crew members. I was in 9th grade when it happened.
The odd coincidence triggered my memory of the event and made me realize why January 28 seemed so familiar was the book I was reading: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman. I finished a chapter on “The Value of Science” and turned the page to find the next chapter, the seventh to be “Richard P. Feynman’s Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry.” The introduction to that chapter reads:
When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, six professional astronauts and one school-teacher were tragically killed.
There it was: January 28, 1986: Thirty-six years ago.
I followed the space program avidly back then. I remember watching the launch of the very first space shuttle, Columbia, on television. That seemed exciting to me. Until then, not a lot of human spaceflight had taken in my fourteen years on Earth. There was Apollo 17, but I was still an infant at the time. There was Apollo-Soyuz and Skylab, but I was too young to understand them, and by then, television had gotten bored with spaceflight.
The space shuttle program seemed to rekindle interest, perhaps because the shuttle was a kind of space plane, and perhaps because it was reuable, and designed to usher in a new era of space exploration.
There wasn’t a lot of information at school when the shuttle exploded. I remember telling friends that if they’d made it to orbit, they might be alright. At the time I didn’t know when it had exploded during the launch, just that there had been an explosion. It wasn’t until a little later in the day, when I saw my 7th grade science teacher, that I realized how bad it was: she was sitting in her classroom, behind her desk, crying.
Not until 9/11 did I pour over newspapers the way I did in the weeks that followed the Challenger disaster. You could only watch it happen on replay so many times, and the television news–which seemed to cover it 24×7–did not offer in-depth coverage. The newspapers was where I went. Looking back on it now, it seems that every column inch in the L.A. Times was dedicated to the accident. The local section had stories about local companies that contributed to the design and construction of some aspect of the shuttle. The Sports section had player reactions. The Business section covered the disaster from a business angle.
Over the weeks and months, names like Morton Thikol became as common as Coca-Cola. Terms like O-rings and SRBs became household names. It’s funny how that all faded into the background over the years, in much the way the names from the O. J. Simpson trial faded away.
I knew at the time that the seven crew members of Challenger were not the first astronauts killed in the line of duty. I knew about the Apollo 1 fire, for instance. But I’d learned in those newspaper accounts is that the Challenger astronauts were the first America astronauts to be killed in-flight.
It was a confused day at first, but utlimately, it was a sad day. It is hard to believe that it has been 36 years since it happened. I sometimes wonder what our space program would look like today, if the decision to launch on that cold January morning in Florida had gone differently.
Written on January 28, 2022.
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