I remember when the space shuttle blew up...

The first school teacher headed to space never made it.

January 28, 2020
Shuttle model

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. How fun for a bunch of tiny humans! 

We watched with mouths agape as a person, someone just like Miss Bornhoft our teacher, made history.

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 sparks of their lives.

We watched in silent confusion. Only but a moment passed before the unbelievable sank in for the adults around us. The TV's switched off as we were shuffled about and set onto distracting tasks like coloring or construction paper related fun.

I don't know why this pre-school 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 lifetime dreaming about space exploration. Every year on this date I spend all morning trying to find the appropriate tattoo design to further cement my memories.

See more historical photos from NASA.