Moments Frozen in Time in Our Collective Memory: The Challenger Explosion – 52 Ancestors #387

On January 28th, 1986, a bright, sunny Florida morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch, killing all 7 crew members aboard. Later, we learned that their deaths probably occurred instantaneously or within seconds after the explosion ripped the capsule apart, but we didn’t know that at the time. Thank goodness they didn’t suffer and may have been blessedly unconscious, unaware of what was happening.

In the US, many people still listened to and watched the shuttle launches. This launch, in particular, was more widely viewed because teacher Crista McAuliffe was among the crew members. The launch feed was piped into many classrooms, including to Crista’s own students who had been celebrating and cheering wildly, then fell into stunned silence. shared this image today.

Most people who are old enough to recall remember exactly what they were doing that day.

I was driving on Interstate 96 in Michigan, on the way to the Hewlett Packard office where I worked. I was listening to the launch on the radio, as I did most space launches, given that I was then and remain a space geek. This launch, this time, though, was different.

Something was wrong. Very wrong.

Of course, I couldn’t see the images in the car, but I can still hear the newscaster’s voice and recall vividly where I was on the expressway. I knew I was only about 10 minutes from the office.

I clung to every word along the way. The newscaster didn’t tell us outright that the Challenger had exploded, but simply that there was something wrong, and there had been a “major malfunction,” followed by complete and utter silence. That NEVER happens on air. Never. I turned the radio up, but it was still eerily silent.

After what seemed like the longest minute or two ever, he simply said that the “vehicle had exploded.” We know now that he was listening to mission control and was probaby trying to digest what he was hearing, and weighing exactly what to say, knowing he had to say something.

He spoke dryly in very measured tones of “recovery and contingency procedures,” and then that they had “impact in the water.” You could tell he was well-trained, but the lack of urgency, panic and shock in his voice allowed us to be hopeful that it wasn’t as bad as the situation suggested.

Remember, I was in a vehicle and couldn’t see anything. I was shocked and numb. Tears began to slip down my cheeks, but I couldn’t cry because I had to drive. I needed to get to that television and see what was transpiring. Maybe I was misunderstanding.

I wanted to believe that the capsule had simply fallen into the ocean and the crew would be picked up. Maybe it was just the booster and the capsule itself was alright. Maybe.

This launch had been previously delayed. I already had a bad feeling about it. I wanted to be wrong.

You can view the NASA video here. It’s still very difficult for me to watch.

When I arrived at the office about 10 minutes later, everyone was clustered tightly around the single small television on the premises, in dead silence. Many were crying.

By this time, more commentary had emerged. I have no idea who was speaking, but the explosion and pieces cascading in graceful smokey arched contrails into the ocean was replaying. I was horrified. When I saw all those separate pieces, I realized what we were watching.

I knew that Crista’s parents and children were in the stands watching, along with the families of the other astronauts. Nothing prepares you to watch that, even though everyone knew space travel held inherent risk.

Given that a school teacher was allowed to join the crew, we believed that perhaps space travel had become safter and one day, more civilians would join those ranks.

The difference between this disaster and others is that in an instant, it was burned with a branding iron into the collective consciousness of an entire set of generations.

We witnessed it, then again and again on replay, and it was shockingly horrible. Most of us remember vividly where we were at the time.

Many were confused at first. We didn’t believe or maybe understand what we saw. We were in collective shock. No, no, this couldn’t possibly be real.

Slowly, as the day wore on, our worst fears were realized and we understood that we had witnessed the deaths of 7 incredibly brave people in the clear, blue sky above Cape Kennedy.

This wasn’t supposed to happen.

This was never supposed to happen.

High Flight

The poem High Flight was written by John Gillespie Magee, Jr. in 1941, but was quickly associated with the Challenger accident when then-President Reagan spoke some of these legendary words to a shocked and grieving nation in his public address to the country in lieu of the previously planned State-of-the-Union. His speech still makes me cry – it was and is incredibly inspirational, as is “High Flight.”

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds –
and done a hundred things You have not dreamed of –
wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence.
Hovering there I’ve chased the shouting wind along
and flung my eager craft through footless halls of air.

“Up, up the long delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace,
where never lark, or even eagle, flew;
and, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

By Tim1965 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

High Flight is carved on the back of the Challenger Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery where the co-mingled cremated remains of the crew were laid to rest that May.

By Jtesla16 – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

For years, I had a copy of High Flight magneted to my filing cabinet, the words brought me comfort, honoring the pioneering spirit of those brave souls, along with others less famous and often forgotten.

Dave’s Departure

Twenty-six years later, on the same day in 2012, about the same time, my brother Dave slipped his bonds of earth too.

Not long before, Dave took this picture through the windshield of his big rig in the mountains someplace out west, probably on his last run. I always think of him, “there,” in that light. I think of them “there” too.

This day and date are forever seared into my memory. Those two events are now forever linked by a common day in terms of grief and disbelief, but also because of bravery, inspiration, admiration and love.

Share Your Memories?

What are your memories of the Challenger explosion? Have you shared them with your family members? Where were you? How did it affect you?


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14 thoughts on “Moments Frozen in Time in Our Collective Memory: The Challenger Explosion – 52 Ancestors #387

  1. The full shock of the Challenger disaster did not hit me until sometime later as I flipped through the pages of an alumni magazine, Suddenly there was a picture which had clearly been taken from a university year book. My initial reaction was “I know that face”. Then I read the article and realized that the face beloned to a classmate of mine from the SUNY Buffalo School of Engineering. It was Greg Jarvis and I had totally failed to register either the name or his picture in the Challenger news stories. That’s when it all really hit me. Somehow a personal connection always brings tragedy closer and engraves it in your memory forever…

  2. First of all, I’m sorry to hear about your brother. I lost my brother almost five years ago and think about him every day.
    The Challenger explosion is one of the moments that is etched in my memory. I was driving to pick up breakfast sandwiches for my office partners and heard the breaking news on the radio. (Back when we listened to the radio in our cars.) I was numb waiting in line for the sandwiches, thinking about Christa McAuliffe and the children from her class. I remember exactly what I was wearing and the taste of the sandwiches we shared back at the office. The disaster was relevant to us since we later learned that the failed o-ring was made by Parker Seal where the husband of one of our office partners worked. Ronald Reagan’s speech, quoting from “High Flight,” was especially poignant, and really helped us focus on the wonderful attributes of the seven astronauts.
    Lorraine Blanton

  3. I woke to the news, here is Australia and raced to put the TV on. Stunned was the way I felt and still feel today. I went to work and that was all we talked about. I still love the thrill of space flight.

  4. Watched it live from roof of Harris Corp in Melbourne FL. I had told our family that morning it was too cold to launch. I was a parts and materials engineer.

  5. I was living in Texas, but Work sent a few of us to Chicago, where we had just completed setting up a customer’s equipment. Had the TV on in the break room, so we were having tea and coffee and Bakery goodies, talking about the Challenger being more exciting than the upcoming Bear’s Game. All executives in the room when it happened. so many cups and glasses dropped from our hands, the shock to us was horrific, all of us were crying – and not just then, on the flight home, at work the next day, back home in Austin, TX. I was working for Communications Satellite – I have never gotten over it, but as I watch Space X, I have more hope of safety.

    Thank you, Roberta, for the amazing post, and Lorraine Blanton for the kind response you shared. – Anniedear

  6. I was at work at the Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research at the University of Chicago. I worked for a group that had flown a scientific instrument aboard the Challenger just the previous August (STS-51-F, SpaceLab 2) (This mission was not without problems and was the next to last successful mission of the Challenger.)

    When the news arrived on the radio, the entire building was stunned by this tragedy. We all knew people at NASA and the impact that it had on their lives. This was not only a terrible personal tragedy for many, but represented a major setback to the space program for years to come.

  7. It was a massive shock to me. I had been heavily invested in space flight very young from at least the first satellite. One part of a science package I subscribed to in the early days held an EP of Shepherd’s flight. But also included what was alleged to be a recording of an earlier Russian cosmonaut dying in space as recorded by a ham radio enthusiast. Perhaps just a space flight myth, but it primed me for space as a very dangerous place.

  8. As a NASA guy myself at the time, I remember it well. I was in the meteorological “Weather Map Room” at NASA Goddard perusing the various weather maps during lunch. There was a TV on the wall which usually displayed weather stuff. Today was a launch, so it was on. I watched the launch and then blow-up. Also, as an ex- Navy person, I immediately thought, “Too bad; they bought the farm.” I then went back to a normal day’s work.

    If the ship next to you in battle sinks, life goes on.

  9. I was in college at UH-Clear Lake, and that day I was at work on Bay Area Blvd, which runs parallel to NASA Rd 1 and was just a few miles from Johnson Space Center. We were doing telephone surveys, but a TV was brought in. I don’t remember now whether it was to watch the launch or if it was afterward. Just about everyone there knew someone who worked at JSC. I had classes with astronauts’ wives.
    The day of the memorial service, held at JSC, I was walking out of the Bayou Bldg on the UHCL campus, which abuts the Space Center property. I heard jets overhead and when I looked up, they were going into the missing man formation, the first time I’d ever seen it done live. It was heartbreaking.

  10. I was in college. I had just left school and went to pick up my mom at Albertsons. She pushed her cart to my car and said very excitedly, “We have to get home! The space shuttle blew up!” I was incredulous. She said they were talking about it in the store. We went home and turned on the TV. It’s very vivid in my mind. I also remember where I was when Columbia exploded. I was home, cleaning house. My husband called me from Dallas where he was scheduled on a flight to come home from a business trip. He said Columbia blew up and they had to ground all the planes due to debris. It was after 9/11 so of course I thought it was terrorism. So very sad.

  11. Your article on the Challenger was very touching. That as well as the JFK assassination will be etched in my mind as long as I live.

  12. I also was saddened by the terrible explosion and deaths of the Challenger astronauts. I too thought they had died in the fireball, and went quickly. Although horrified that so many small school age children were watching because of the school teacher aboard, I still thought it was very cool that a teacher had been chosen in the first place. She was a brave American educator. However, I later obtained a copy of an official NASA Report, via my local library’s Interlibrary Loan, that stated the wounded astronauts had actually drowned after the damaged command capsule hit the water and sank.

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