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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 29, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 05
Memories still fresh on 30th anniversary of The Challenger disaster
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Memories still fresh on 30th anniversary of The Challenger disaster

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

On Thursday people around the world observed the 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. NASA astronauts Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe died instantly after a booster engine failed and the shuttle exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff.

The entire nation watched live coverage of the widely anticipated launch. And, like many that were watching that sad day, I can remember exactly where I was and what was happening when disaster struck and one of the saddest days in modern space exploration was recorded in human history.

My kindergarten class at C.C. Ronnow Elementary in Las Vegas, like thousands of other classrooms across America, took a break from the lesson of the day to watch a live broadcast of the space launch. Currently space exploration is pretty exciting with all of the technological advances and real talk of actually sending man to Mars and so on. I don't think that most Americans could tell you the names of the American astronauts in space right now, or even when they launched into orbit, let alone their return date. But back in the mid 1980s it was still pretty much a journey into the unknown; space seemed bigger and darker somehow. So whenever a crew launched into space the nation (and probably the world) paid attention. It was a happening and this mission in particular because of the uniqueness and diversity of the crew.

As we all sat cross-legged on the floor, the lights turned off so we could see the TV set better, each of our eyes fixed on the image of the rocket's blast off with our little minds aflutter - suddenly, something went wrong.

When you are five or six years old you don't really understand what really happened during moments of great disaster. When Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after takeoff I remember thinking that it was all part of the whole thing and that the rocket ship was still headed for space and that what I was seeing was the part of the evolution where the launch rocket separates from the cabin. But then I heard the newsman say that something had gone wrong.

Again, I remember thinking that surely, whatever it was that went wrong couldn't have meant death. After all, these were our astronauts headed into space in a NASA space shuttle. They were superheroes and everyone that is between the ages of 5-6 years old knows that superheroes do not die.

Then, the hesitation from the teacher as she went to shut off the TV set, but couldn't. With tears streaming down her face, not hysterical mind you, but certainly grief stricken, she watched and listened for the important parts of the news so she could then relay it to us, throughout the day, so that our young minds could grasp the totality of what had just happened. You see, it is important to note that this all happened before 24 hour news, before YouTube and cell phone footage of people being shot, terrorists cutting off heads, and other horrible things that a world sick for images of violence now downloads and streams for entertainment existed. This was one of the first times, and I believe one of the last times, that millions of American children simultaneously watched death and destruction happen on live TV. And the truth is most of the students cried when they saw the teacher cry because they really didn't know why they were upset.

But I was a precocious boy; I watched NBC nightly news like most kids watched cartoons so my mind was trained to listen to what the broadcaster was saying. So I saw, heard, and understood what had happened once it was repeated in a clear report minutes after the accident occurred and the first initial shock wore off. I remember first thinking, 'That astronaut that was a teacher ... her class must be really sad.'

As I sat among the rest of my classmates, many of them asking if they could go home (many parents actually did come and pick their kids up from school) I just kept thinking about the kids who knew that astronaut that had died and how that would be a very difficult thing to handle if my teacher had been killed like that on TV. I also remember thinking that space didn't seem like it was meant for everyone and that maybe we shouldn't send so many people at once just in case an accident would occur in the future.

It is hard to believe that this was 30 years ago. It doesn't seem like 'just yesterday' by any stretch of the imagination, but when I am reminded of that day I can vividly see the classroom, the television, the teacher trying to hold back tears so we would all be less sad/scared, and having this overwhelming feeling that we all just witnessed something that nobody was prepared for. Heavy stuff for a 5-year-old.

President Ronald Reagan postponed the State of the Union address planned for that evening and instead spoke to the country, saying, '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.'

Reagan also reminded the nation's schoolchildren the price of discovery: 'The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them.'

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