Friday, January 28, 2011

25th Anniversary: Challenger Disaster

Twenty-five years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral in Florida. This is a one of those where-were-you moments, as that's what people were doing today, looking back at that horrible day. This was actually my first where-were-you moment, since I was alive when this happened, though I was only two months old so I don't remember. I was probably sleeping, crying or loading my diaper. I was aware of the disaster at a very young age though, as my brother was really into space and astronauts and had a big picture of the Challenger crew hanging on the wall in our shared room. I didn't know the significance of the photo for awhile, just thinking it was another item in my brother's poster collection. It didn't take long for someone in my family to explain that those people weren't around anymore-that they had died being astronauts. This was one of those weird moments in my childhood, as I thought that all astronauts and firemen and other heroic people were indestructible. The photo, when I see it today, reminds me of my childhood, but not in a bad way. It was horrible what happened to those people, but the picture was part of my room and I connected it with real heroes, which is what they were.

On January 28th, 1986 it was a chilly day for a launch-going down to the 30's around launch time, which is pretty cold for Florida. The space shuttle Challenger was ready for launch, along with it's crew. This was no ordinary space trip, as it was the first to have a civilian. Along with the six astronauts, elementary school teacher Christa McAuliffe, was taking the trip with them. The crew was also the most diverse, consisting of one African-American, one Japanese-American, and two women, one of which was Jewish. As Challenger blasted off, many were watching the launch, including schoolchildren everywhere who wanted to see the first teacher in space. Seventy-three seconds after launch, Challenger suddenly exploded over Cape Canaveral. The crew compartment shot out of the fireball, intact, and continued upward another three miles before plummeting. The free fall lasted more than two minutes. There was no parachute, no escape system whatsoever. If the crew was still alive after the compartment was shot out, it must of been the longest minutes of their lives.

Stiff O-ring seals were the culprit of the explosion. Something so small caused so much anguish for the group's families and all the people watching on television. The death of a young schoolteacher, combined with NASA's refusal to share information about the accident, added to the nation's collective pain. President Ronald Reagan's poetic tribute soothed raw emotions. Most consider his speech on the Challenger disaster to be his best. Here is an excerpt:

"And I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle's takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It's all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It's all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we'll continue to follow them."

The full speech can be viewed on Youtube. I was going to try and post it here, but don't quite have all the capabilities yet.

NASA placed a wreath on the Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday to commemorate the fallen heroes. We have had our share of disasters and where-were-you moments in our lifetimes, such as the similar Columbia disaster a few years back, and will not have any shortage of them in the future, but we know that America will never be pulled into despair. Though tragedy has reared it ugly head many times in our history, America has always persevered and will continue to do so.

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