I Remember The Challenger Explosion

It's my earliest memory of NASA and shaped my life.

January 28, 2016

In 1986, I was a tiny child - only 5 years old in Albuquerque, NM - when space travel took over my squishy little brain. I don't know why my mother was with me at the time, but we were at the cute little preschool/kindergarten that my family dropped me off at every morning. Lots of parents were hovering around. The TV blinked with low-resolution light in the background until everyone's attention shifted to the event of the day.

A teacher, the first ordinary earthling to head into earth's orbit, strapped into her seat aboard the space shuttle Challenger. Christa McAuliffe trained like an astronaut and had jobs to do as a payload specialist for STS 51L. A countdown began - something fun for children to participate along with - and all of our voices were then silenced. We watched as a person, someone just like Miss Bornhoft our teacher, made history.

Christa McAuliffe in the shuttle simulator - NASA photograph

I believe this to be a moment when the dreams of a generation of humans believed they too could be part of something beyond our own planet. 

Seven humans headed for earth's orbit. Sadly, they made it only just more than a minute towards weightlessness before suffering a catastrophic failure that ended an ambitious mission and silenced the spark of their lives.

Challenger's Final Liftoff

Challenger Explodes

We watched in silent shock. Only but a moment passed before the unbelievable sank in for the adults around us. We were shuffled about and set onto distracting tasks like coloring or construction paper related fun.

I don't know why this moment lives so strongly in my mind - that and how to properly brush my teeth - but this tragedy somehow set in motion a lifetime of fascination by the seemingly impossible task of space travel. I hope that if the crew could pull a Ben Kenobi, they would look back and see how the tragic nature of their deaths inspired future nerds like me to spend a life dreaming about space exploration. It's been 30 years I've thought about this, and I've spent all morning trying to find the appropriate tattoo design to further cement my memories.

See more historical photos from NASA.

STS 51L Crew RIP