Friday, January 28, 2011

Where I Was When the Challenger Exploded

UPDATE: This essay was published in Perspectives on Modern World History: The Challenger Disaster by Greenhaven Press.

Of everything that ever happened to me as a child, nothing was as traumatic or meaningful as the explosion of the Challenger on January 28, 1986.  It's an event that I have never been able to shake, and I find myself returning to it at odd times, my thoughts drifting back to a cold morning when I was not yet nine years old.  The Challenger disaster was my introduction to a world of chaos an unhappy endings, and it was such a crucial moment in my development as an individual that it seems impossible that it could have been witnessed by anybody else.

I didn't realize until this morning that today was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event.  At first I just blinked at the news, with a what-do-you-know-about-that? look on my face.  But then I asked my students if they had ever heard of it, and of course they hadn't, so I showed them a clip from  I was afraid they would snicker, or hoot, or say something crass when they watched the footage, but they didn't.  They were stunned.

I've written more dreadful first drafts about the Challenger than probably anything else, too.  Just about fifteen minutes ago I searched "challenger" on my hard drive and found two documents.  One was a dreary narrative poem that I wrote when I was an undergraduate and which I would never force on anybody.  The other was this, a narrative that I almost don't remember writing.  It's obvious to me that I wrote this as an example of some sort for my AP students two school years ago, but I can't remember the details.  Here it is, just as I found it.

The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies

"Childhood," the poem goes, "is the kingdom where nobody dies."  I can't remember the first time I ever heard that, but let me tell you something--it's a lie.  There is death in childhood, just as surely as there are rugburns, noogies, and Indian burns.  That's what death is, really--the world's harshest Indian burn.

I learned about death on January 28, 1986, eight years old, a student in Ms. Selvaggi's third grade class.  We lived in Orlando at the time, in a one-story bungalow in a brand-new subdivision outside of the city.  We had a shimmering swimming pool in the back yard; in the front, a solitary orange tree grew from sandy soil.  At the end of our street the houses and pavement gave way to a thicket of trees--the end of the suburbs, the end of civilization.  My family moved there when we were young and struggling, at the edge of town on a plot of land that is now worth thousands more than it was then.

Orlando had Disney World, EPCOT Center, and Sea world, but I didn't really care about those things.  What Orlando really had was the space shuttle.

Whenever the shuttle would launch from its pad in Cape Canaveral, my whole family would unfold the orange and brown lawn chairs with their latticework of frayed polyester and camp out on the front grass.  Mom would make lemonade, and we'd keep our eyes trained on the horizon for the first glimpse of the shiny white marvel.  I'd straddle my dirtbike at the end of the driveway, imagining the helmeted men at Mission Control (why they needed helmets at Mission Control seemed obvious to me, a vital detail whenever I pictured them) counting down.  Ten...nine...eight... I was right there with them, seven...six...five...  I could see the boosters begin to shudder.!

And there it was!   Silently peeking its head over the treetops!  Rising, it seemed, on flames and an enormous pedestal of white smoke, the space shuttle!  Mom would applaud, dad would hoot, and Adam, my little brother, would shove his fist into his mouth in celebration.  We'd watch it climb into the sky, through the clouds, until it was just a tiny point at the end of a line, that enormous white pedestal elongated into a single beautiful stroke of white.  Gone.

We had space shuttle magnets on our refrigerator.  Here was Discovery, holding up a picture of my Aunt Joyce, there was Columbia affixing a fifty-cent coupon for ground beef.  I had space shuttles on my bedspread, photographs of Atlantis on my walls.  At night, I put on my space shuttle pj's and did my spelling homework with space shuttle pencils.  I didn't want to ride on the space shuttle; I wanted to be the space shuttle.

And there I was in Ms. Selvaggi's class, in January of 1986, everybody excited because today was the day that the teacher was going to go into space on the Challenger, and we were going to get to see it happen.  Everybody in the country was paying attention to this flight, which made us proud and somewhat protective of our secret, that we got to watch these spaceships blast off over the rooftops of the suburbs and out of sight.

Ms. Selvaggi was young, in her early thirties, probably, and attractive.  She was slender, had bright green eyes and long hair.  She was Italian and looked it, and so naturally my mother and grandmother took a liking to her and often chatted with her after school, as the busses were chugging in the parking lot and we were waiting for my older brother to be dismissed.

She was a new teacher, and idealistic, and was always quick with a hug, a smile, or an extra gold star on my science homework.  And I, a gifted child, knew how to supply all of the adorable smiles and precious answers that she could stand.  She couldn't wait to talk to my mother at the end of the day--"You'll never guess what Aaron said today."

There was a solar eclipse that year, the year of the space shuttle.  We made personal eclipse viewers out of cardboard shoe boxes and aluminum foil and marched out to the jungle gym behind the portables for a glimpse at the dangerous and irresistible solar eclipse.   I trained my radiation-proof viewer to the eastern skies, to the same skies where the Challenger would later blow into pieces, and saw the moon crawl across the sun's flaming corona.  I stood next to Ms. Selvaggi that day, and, though it might have been my imagination, it seemed that she wanted to witness this monumental event with  me, her favorite student.

The day the Challenger exploded was freezing cold.  Mom insisted we put on our coats and hats before she would drive us to school, it being much too bitter for the normal ten minute bike ride through the suburban streets and into the back lot of Dr. Phillips Elementary School.  On the way, we kept our eyes open for orange trees dripping with icicles.  Orange farmers would spray their crops with a garden hose whenever the temperature dropped below freeezing so that the fruit would be protected by the insulating layer of ice.  We had had sub-freezing temperatures that week, and had been treated to the bizarre sight of men wearing heavy winter jackets, spraying their icy orange trees with garden hoses.

By the time I climbed the three wooden steps to the portable classroom and shed my coat and gloves, I had forgotten all about the cold.  Ms. Selvaggi was keeping order in the small square room, but it was clear that everyone was excited.  The T.V. in the corner was on, but the sound was down.  Tom Brokaw's face filled the screen; he was intoning in what were surely grave words what a momentus day it was that an ordinary teacher from a high school in New Hampshire--Christa McAuliffe--was going into space.

And how proud we were!  We were from Florida, Ms. Selvaggi reminded us.  Not everyone got to watch the space shuttle as it went up into space; in fact, many kids just our age didn't understand how special it was that we got to watch it every time there was a launch.  And this was such a special launch, when everyone in the country would be watching and wishing they were as lucky as we were because a teacher was going into space.

The morning was interminable.  First was the Pledge of Allegiance, "America the Beautiful," and the morning announcements from Dr. Anderson, our blowhard of a vice-principal.  Then the day started.  Ms. Selvaggi got us right down to work on our reading, then vocabulary, and then our sentences.  She managed to calm us down, though she keep looking at her watch.

Finally, it was after eleven o'clock.  The intercom buzzed as it always did when we were about to have an important message from the principal.  

"Good morning, boys and girls!" the voice rang through the speakers.  "The first ever school teacher is about to go into space on the space shuttle!  Everybody go out to the playground so we can see history being made!"  

"Come on, everybody!" Ms. Selvaggi hollered.  "Everyone in a single file line, now!"

No one thought of coats or gloves as we bounded out of our classroom, down the aisle of the other portables, and out toward the playground, where we had recently congregated for the thrilling glimpse of imminent death on the day when the moon passed between our own eyes and the sun.

When we made it to the playground, seconds later, most of us knew immediately what we were looking at.  The shuttle had already exploded, and a bloated cloud hung in the sky where we should have seen a single line going straight out of sight.  Even the dimmest of us needed only a few minutes to put it all together.  First, we were too late to the launch to see the shuttle go into space.  Second, something awful had happened.  It was freezing cold, we were standing on the playground in just our sweaters, and Christa McAuliff was not going into space anymore.

I looked at Ms. Selvaggi.  When we were staring breathlessly at the solar eclipse earlier that schoolyear, she had seemed just like us, gazing in amazement at the show in the sky.  Now, she was as shocked as I, staring at the horrible cloud in the clear, crisp morning.

Ms. Selvaggi didn't try to lie and tell us everything was going to be okay.  She gathered her students together, some crying, some incredulous, and brought us back to the portable classroom.  There was nothing she could do to change what had happened, and she didn't pretend to.  She reached down and held me close as we walked back up the stairs to the portable.  It was cold, and we both were shivering.


  1. Again I find myself envious of your childhood memory.

    I remember watching the footage of the explosion after school with my grandmother. We sat on the couch and cried. She died less than two weeks later of a heart-attack equally as shocking to me as the Challenger. Maybe that's why I don't remember the details of the school day as vividly.

    Thanks for making me cry....

  2. Wow, Mr. Brame. I remember days after it happened hanging out on the merry-go-round with a few other friends contemplating what caused it. We had no idea what we were talking about, but were all obviously shaken and trying to make sense of it, in Kansas. I can now imagine being there in real life.