Tuesday, 28 January 1986
In January 1986 I was in 7th grade, attending a private Christian school. On a normal day we would start out with Math class. Tuesday, 28 January 1986 wasn’t a normal day. That day was an important Space Shuttle launch, especially for teachers. The Space Shuttle Challenger was launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida with civilian astronaut and teacher Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe was a high school teacher and selected as part of NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. It was a big deal for all Americans and for teachers.
My school was small and class sizes were even smaller. There were only four students in my classroom and it was a combined class, 7th and 8th grade. There were two 7th graders, me and Jenny and two 8th graders, Eric and Sonja. Our teacher, Mr Folkersma, was a humorous man, always joking around. His antics reminded me of Jackie Gleason in the Honeymooners, but his appearance reminded me of Jack Horkhiemer.
Teacher In Space Project
Before our math lesson we talked about the space program, the shuttle launch and Christa McAuliffe. The Teacher In Space Project was started to send teachers into space as Payload Specialists. While in space they would conduct zero-g classes for students back on Earth. Upon returning to teaching they would share their experience with their students. It was designed to inspire interest in math, science and the space program.
I was a space nerd as a kid (and as an adult), I didn’t need the extra inspiration. My parents would take us out in the wee hours of the morning to watch meteor showers or to look at the stars and planets. I was a big fan of the shuttle program as well. I had models of the shuttle on the launch pad and Enterprise hanging in my room. I couldn’t have posters on my wall but if I could, they would’ve been of the shuttle or space related. (I currently have three pictures of the shuttle hanging in my house)
Mr. Folkersma was excited about the launch and the idea of teachers going into space. I asked him if we could watch the shuttle launch but the school didn’t have a TV to watch it on. I offered the idea of going to Sonja’s house, who lived right across the street, to watch but that was denied too. Not able to watch the launch I reluctantly prepared for school.
After our talk about the shuttle launch we transitioned back into the daily routine. The math lesson was geared toward space and the shuttle launch as much as it could be but honestly, algebra is algebra.
As we worked silently on the math assignment the classroom phone rang, which rarely happened. Mr. Folkersma answered the phone in his jovial way. I looked up and as he listened his face drained of color. He hung up the phone, sat at his desk, visibly shaken, in stunned silence. We all stopped working and looked at him.
Through a cracking voice and straining to hold back his emotions he told us the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff. He left the room for a few minutes and when he returned he dismissed us for the day. The entire school wasn’t dismissed just our class. To this day I don’t know if Mr. Folkersma was personally connected with the shuttle launch or not but it had a major affect on him.
We packed our bags and left school for the day. I lived less than a mile from school and ran most of the way home. On a normal day I would plop in front of the TV and watch re-runs or play video games after school. On this day I plopped down and turned on the news. I watched all day as the launch and explosion aired over and over again. Dan Rather spoke with experts trying to piece together the events that led to the explosion.
We had cable at the time but I stuck to CBS for the news. It was what my dad watched so it was what I knew. They interrupted all programs, no Soap Operas that day, just news about the Challenger.
Challenger, go at throttle up
I watched the shuttle launch numerous times that day. I even taped some of the news coverage, which I no longer have. The launch started out fine, Challenger clears the tower, begins its roll and rockets to the stars.
According to Mission Control all systems were normal, 73 seconds into the flight Mission Control gives the command “Challenger, go at throttle up” Commander Scobee replied, “Roger, go at throttle up” and then…
The image is forever ingrained in my mind, the shuttle engulfed in a fireball, then a wide shot of the smoke trail with the two rocket boosters flying off forming a Y in the sky. The debris raining down with streams of white smoke.
The NASA announcer deadpanned the understatement of the day, “…obviously a major malfunction.”
It was a hard day for America. Christa McAuliffe and the Teacher in Space Project was highly publicized leading up to the launch. It should have been an exciting new step in the space program, instead it was a major setback.
Space Shuttle Challenger Launch
“slipped the surly bonds of earth”
President Ronald Reagan was due to give the annual State of the Union address that night. He postponed the State of the Union and addressed the Nation in its time of sorrow.
Return to Flight
Over Two years later, September 1988, I was sitting in history class when the teacher rolled in a TV and turned it on. Space Shuttle Discovery was preparing to launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida (a stones throw from Cape Canaveral). It was the first shuttle launch since the Challenger disaster in 1986.
We all watched in silence as Discovery lifted off and cleared the tower. When I heard Mission Control give the command “Discovery, go at throttle up” I held my breath staring at the TV. Discovery hit the throttle, a few seconds later the rocket boosters seperated and she was off into space.
That was it, for the American public Space Shuttle launches were routine and mundane for another 15 years. That was the last shuttle launch I recall seeing on TV for years.
Ten years later, April 1998, I was on a business trip in Tampa Bay and thanks to AT&T’s backlog I had 4 days with nothing to do. I decided to head over to the East Coast and visit Kennedy Space Center. As luck would have it there was a shuttle launch scheduled the next day. I returned the following day, found out it was near impossible to get back into Kennedy Space Center and drove up the coast.
The coast highway was packed with cars parked up and down the shoulder. I found a place to park near a town named Titusville and walked into a crowded parking lot to watch. The Space Shuttle Columbia launched from Kennedy Space Center a little after noon.
The shuttle looked small from my vantage point, then the smoke began to billow out as the shuttle slowly lifted into the sky in silence. About the time the shuttle cleared the tower the massive roar of the engines could be heard and everyone cheered! I stood and watch the shuttle fly to space until all that was left was a trial of smoke. It wasn’t routine or mundane, it was nothing short of awesome!
To The Brave Crew
On that same visit to Kennedy Space Center I saw the massive Space Mirror Memorial erected for all the lost astronauts including the crew of the Challenger.
The memorial that holds the most meaning for me is the one erected at Arlington National Cemetery, a humble headstone for the crew. I visited the memorial for the first time in the late 1990’s, seeing their faces on the plaque took me back to that cold January day when seven astronauts made the ultimate sacrifice to advance mankind’s quest for the stars.
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave.
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher