The Surly Bonds of Earth

One of the most impactful moments of my childhood was 30 years ago this week. Like many of you, I’m remembering where I was when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into the STS program’s 25th flight. Like many Americans, I was only mildly aware that the Shuttle was lifting off that day – a far cry from five years earlier when the Space Shuttle Columbia lifted off for the first time and it was an achievement heralded around the world as well as for a youngster like myself.

Nonetheless, the day the shuttle exploded was momentous for me and I wanted to share my thoughts about that surreal day.

I was a 7th grader at Eastgate Middle School – the same school my son (also 13) now attends. I had followed the Shuttle program closely just like many of my friends. Well, maybe I was a little obsessed. Almost as obsessed as my love for Star Wars and all things space-related. For a brief time in my childhood, my intentions were to become an astronaut. And since I had just finished a Science Fair project on the Space Shuttle, I had become known around school as the Space Shuttle expert. I enjoyed shooting off model rockets and built scale models of the Orbiter. I even had Space Shuttle wallpaper.

But 25 of anything makes it slightly more routine. When the Shuttle program launched in 1981, it came with the promise of dozens of shuttle launches a year and citizen travel within a decade or two. The reusable Orbiter’s cargo bay would eventually house passenger seats when it wasn’t sending up cargo. To a child of 13, it all seemed perfectly plausible. My main passions were the World Champion Royals and the Space Shuttle. Both seemed indestructible.

So by the time January 28, 1986 rolled around, I had no idea there was a Shuttle launch that day. The day was like any other day and I found myself in the lunchroom in line for chicken patties or square pizza or some other middle school delicacy when our principal came over the intercom and announced, “Students and Faculty, I have some very sad news to report. There was an explosion during the space shuttle launch today. I don’t have any more news, but we wanted to make you aware. Thank you.”

The grim headline from that evening's Kansas City Star

The grim headline from that evening’s Kansas City Star

Explosion during the launch? Like near the launch pad? What did that mean? I didn’t even consider that the shuttle itself exploded. I couldn’t comprehend what I would witness minutes later. As “the shuttle expert” kids started coming up to me asking what it meant and I had no answers. And then I thought about the one person who would know the answer – Mr. Lanning.

Mr. Lanning was my science teacher and my partner in crime when it came to Space Shuttle knowledge. I dumped out my lunch tray and during the chaos of the news, I ran up to the library where I knew there was a television. (See kids? Being on the AV club has its perks.) But what I found was our librarian with her hand on the shoulder of Mr. Lanning as they watched two smoke plumes sprial towards the sky. He was crying.

“That could have been me.”

And then it all hit me like a sledgehammer. My partner in Space Shuttle knowledge was also an applicant to be part of the Teacher in Space program and, through other random circumstances, could’ve been on that exact flight instead of Christa McAuliffe.

I’d never seen a teacher cry before. Are teachers even allowed to cry in school? I went up to him and we just watched in silence broken only by the faint sobbing next to me. As the news repeated the video over and over again, he pointed out the gigantic fireball and said “there’s no way they survived.”

The rest of the day was a blur. The school only had a couple of televisions and I had already seen what I wanted to see. One of my teachers explained that “this is your Kennedy moment” and my mom had to explain what that meant when I got home and made me a cup of hot chocolate to ease the pain. Mom had also thrown a VHS tape in the VCR when the Breaking News came on and recorded it on our brand new VCR – the one we had bought to record the World Series games several months prior and was now taping nightly episodes of Late Night with David Letterman. I tried to explain what “Challenger – Go at throttle up” meant to my mom. That was the last words heard before the explosion.

I watched all six hours of the tape that night as anchors and experts all explained what needed no explanation. The Space Shuttle exploded. People died. Heroes died live on television.

It was the end of an innocent period for me. Worship of spacecraft and astronauts quickly turned to a larger understanding about the world around me. Congress. Oversight committees. Budgets. Quality assurance. Politics. These were all lessons I would learn of over the next year as I watched and read nearly everything I could get my hands on.

The Kansas City Times from the next morning already speculating about the plume of fire in the right solid rocket booster

The Kansas City Times from the next morning already speculating about the plume of fire in the right solid rocket booster

But I became obsessed. I clipped articles. I wrote to NASA for pictures. (Before the Internet, you could write NASA and they’d just mail you folders full of pictures.) I became even more curious about how something so indestructible could destruct.

It would be over a year before I’d save up $15 to go to the Government bookstore in the basement of Bannister Mall to buy the Official Report on the Space Shuttle making me the uncoolest fourteen year old in the world as I waited for the thick blue report to go on sale.

I read the whole thing and understood about 5% of it. But I read it.

At the end of the day, the entire explosion came down to a small defect that was amplified under cold conditions. The rubber “O-Ring” simply cracked under the cold weather of the launch. And it was a failure of imagination, just as it was with the Apollo I fire and later with the Columbia disaster. A failure of asking additional questions. It’s something I now, as a computer engineer, always try to remember. Yes, it’s annoying to ask the five why’s but it’s important.

I take great solace in the words of President Reagan following the disaster. Regardless of politics, he was my favorite President. I just really enjoyed his speeches and jokes and dimeanor through my youth. But on that night after watching the entire playback over and over again, he made the best speech of his Presidency (including “Tear down that wall…”)

Thirty years later, we’ve seen an incredible amount of change in the world – and an incredible amount of tragedy and triumph. It wouldn’t be the last time we saw heroes die live on television and it wouldn’t be the last time a generation would have their “Kennedy” moment. But for me, thirty years later, this week reminded me of a simpler time when things suddenly got complicated. An innocence was lost. I learned that heroes can die and that teachers can cry.

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.”

–President Ronald Reagan

[Featured image: Challenger heads to the launch pad for the final time. NASA Photo/CC]

1 Comment

  1. Debbie Peterson

    Great article Chris. Thanks for sharing.

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