Today is another one of those “where were you when” days ~ the ones my generation like to ponder with a sentimentality which increases with the passing of years.   This particular anniversary – of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger – has perhaps paled in significance when compared with our more recent penultimate national tragedy.  But because today is the quarter century anniversary of that horrific event, it’s gotten more press than usual.

So where was I on that day?  I was in the office of our local cystic fibrosis foundation, stuffing envelopes.  I’d decided to do some volunteer work, and I’m not sure how I happened to choose working for the CFF, but I’d been going there once a week since my son started kindergarten that fall.  I remember I was addressing thank you cards for memorial gifts – addressing them by hand, mind you, because there were  no computers in those days, and the lone typewriter was reserved for the director’s secretary.  Besides that, I think it was felt that a hand addressed note was more personal.  And I had nice handwriting, so the job fell to me.

Someone  in the office  heard the news on the radio, alerted the rest of us, and we gathered around a small television that appeared from somewhere.  We stood there transfixed, watching the endless replays as the shuttle rose into the clear blue sky (why does the sky always seem so perfectly blue on these days of national tragedy?) and then suddenly become nothing but billows of white smoke you could almost have mistaken for the fluffy white clouds that would be typical on a winter morning in Florida.

While I watched this tragedy unfold on a tiny screen, it occurred to me that my parents-in-law were most likely seeing it happen in person.  At that time, they spent the winters in a small condo on Cocoa Beach, just a few miles away from Cape Canaveral,  and the residents routinely took their lawn chairs out into the front lawn to watch the frequent shuttle launches.   Because it was 1985 and I couldn’t whip out my cell phone to call them, I had to wait until I got home that afternoon to hear their reaction.

“It was just the most awful thing I ever saw in my life,” my mother in law said. “Seeing that rocket ship go up there like they always do, and then suddenly – nothing but smoke!  We all knew something terrible had happened.  But we couldn’t believe it would just blow up like that, with not a trace left.”   Although neither of them ever spoke about it to us again, they sold their place in Florida soon afterward, and never watched another space launch in person or on television.

Those kinds of tragic occurrences, the loss of life, the failure of technology, are humbling to say the least.  They make us recognize not only our mortality and the insecurity of life in general, but also the fallibility of our dreams.  One false move, one unchecked statistic, one faulty part, and everything we hold dear goes up in smoke.

It makes life challenging, that’s for sure.


13 thoughts on “Challenged

  1. I was getting ready to leave for work when my brother called me into the living room to see it on the news. It seems even sadder now, 25 years later, a life time the crew members didn’t have ahead of them.

  2. Becca, I’m so glad you wrote this post. I was in the locker room at my gym this morning, getting ready (it’s a great opportunity to take a shower while someone else is watching my kids!) when I saw the report on CNN.

    I just stopped and watched the scene unfold again, and when I saw the explosion, I gasped… just like I saw it for the first time. I was in fifth grade, in Mrs. Widmer’s Social Studies class, when the principal came on the PA and told the teachers to turn on the televisions. We had paid special attention to the Challenger in preceding days, because of Christa McAuliffe, the very first teacher to go up in space. And also, because of Ron McNair, an astronaut from South Carolina, the second African American to fly in space.

    Today, I was thinking about how people often think of where they were when Elvis died, or JFK or MLK was shot, or the Twin Towers were attacked. But for me, this moment in history was very significant… because I was a child, but old enough to know and understand exactly what was happening.

    • My son was in kindergarten, and I’m not sure he quite understood the implications of the event. It would definitely make an impression on a fifth grader -obviously so, because it’s stayed with you ever since.

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  4. Hi Becca,

    Followed Angie, my writing buddy, to your site. The town next to mine has a library branch named after Christa. It’s slightly embarrassing, but I could tell you where I was for almost every horrible event except this one. I remember it happening, mainly because she had this dream to go up there and she lived in the next state. But what I was doing or where I was, I couldn’t tell you. Probably, because the 80’s were a turbulent time in my life. I felt disconnected to the life I wanted to lead, that I now fortunately do lead.

    So, I’m going to think back to January 28, 1986. I believe I lived in a Victorian with a few male roommates. I remember calling the police one time and moving out a few months later. Long story, but we clashed to the point where it got scary to come home and somewhat physical. Hmm. This might make an interesting essay.

    Thanks for the memory prompter!


    • Hi, Giulietta ~ thank you for stopping by to share your story 🙂 How interesting that you don’t recall that event.. now you’ve gotten me very curious to know where you were! I’m glad you were able to solve the disconnect in your life that was going on during that time, and get on the right track for you!

  5. I was meeting a friend for lunch near Rice University in Houston. I heard the news on the radio as I was looking for a parking place. When I finally parked, I sat and listened a bit more and then went into the restaurant and met my friend.

    There was a small tv at the bar, and the entire restaurant, staff and patrons alike, had clustered around it. No one said a word. There was the same air of unreality I experienced when watching the second plane during 9/11. I knew I was watching it, and I knew it was real, but somehow I was certain it was a movie.

    A terrible day.

    • There is a sense of unreality about it, I think because we see these things on television, and we’re accustomed to television being a place where fantasy reigns supreme.

  6. A neighbor’s little boy was sick and couldn’t go to school. I was sitting with him, and we were watching some silly cartoon or sitcom when they broke in with the horrible news. I’ll never forget it.

  7. I was walking into the country club for a Junior League meeting and passing through the bar. (Yes, I was once in Junior League. That was a lifetime ago.) They were just counting down, so I stood to watch the launch before moving to my meeting — you’re right; it’s one of those places you don’t forget being.

    Hmmm. This one. 9/11. Kennedy assassination. Diana’s death. I think those are the only ones I can thank of… wonder what major event I’m forgetting.

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