Thirty years ago Thursday, I watched in real time, along with millions of other schoolchildren, as my first real heroes died in an awful explosion over the Florida coastline. The Space Shuttle Challenger disaster took the lives of seven astronauts on January 28, 1986, including a schoolteacher named Christa McAuliffe who was meant to be the first civilian astronaut sent to space.
While I was in first grade thousands of miles away at the time, Challenger is the first news event I can actually recall experiencing on the day it unfolded. A few years ago, a survey found the Challenger disaster is the fourth most memorable moment in the history of television.
Even three decades later, it represents some sort of a beginning in my memory, a premature loss of a certain kind of innocence.
Two concepts are often introduced in the early school grades with the potential to exponentially expand young minds: space and dinosaurs. I’m now a father of an 8-year-old, so I can confirm this is still the case. Space and dinosaurs are literally otherworldly ideas that hint at the full span of time and the universe. They’re the first indications that there’s much more to life than cartoons and backyards and school and shopping with Mom.
Dinosaurs are long gone, of course, except for the bones and fuel. But space…that’s something that can send a mind into orbit. In a thoroughly explored world, astronauts are like the modern equivalent of 15-century explorers, only possibly cooler. Part of that inherent coolness is that they’re just like the adults from daily life, like a mom or a teacher. Christa McAuliffe only served to drive that impression home.
Before Challenger, life was literally all just child’s play for me. After Challenger, I was not only aware of the unthinkable breadth of the world and the universe, but also of how brutal and cruel it all can be. I still remember some of the hideous jokes kids and even some remarkably crass adults told in the wake of the tragedy. They’re not worth repeating here, but they still make my stomach hurt.
There’s a weird thing about my memory of the Challenger disaster, though. Up until I started going back and watching old news videos from 1986 and researching McAuliffe, I remembered that she was from my home state of Colorado. If you had asked me a few months ago about her, I would have told you that I remember her clearly, how she was a teacher from Boulder, I thought, and how she was supposed to be the first teacher in space.
When the space shuttle was new (photos)
But Christa McAuliffe never taught in Boulder, or anywhere else in Colorado. She taught in New Hampshire, and so far as I’ve been able to tell, she never lived anywhere west of Virginia.
It’s possible I might have just misunderstood something I saw on the local news about the Challenger accident when I was 6 and held on to that bit of bad information, but I wonder if I didn’t internalize the trauma a little more than I realized and maybe unconsciously, because it’s such a big personal milestone in my memory, maybe I actually wanted her to be closer to me.
There’s also been some recent research on memory that seems to indicate that the more we access a memory, the less accurate that memory might be. Since this is the first news event I remember really experiencing in the moment, it’s something I’ve talked about and thought about more than just about any other memory I have from the 1980s, and each time I’ve remembered it, I may have just been playing a game of telephone with my own brain, and getting further from the actual truth.
To try and get back to the real truth of that day, and to commemorate the sacrifice of seven brave people who sought to better understand the universe — not for personal gain, but for the betterment of us all — I dug up some old news footage from that day and did my best to re-create it as I can best remember experiencing it in the below mini-podcast.
The Challenger crew inspired me at a very young age to explore our insanely beautiful universe, whether it’s immersing myself in little-known parts of the world or trying to understand the fascinating frontiers of technology and science, especially space. But their sacrifice also taught me not to take any of it for granted, because it’s all so fragile that something as mundane as an o-ring can cause a tragedy.
That’s one reason I’m completely content exploring the universe from the relative comfort and safety of Earth via our most advanced tools and speaking with the most brilliant minds in astrophysics and astronomy. Fortunately, as the Challenger crew and the many space explorers that have followed them demonstrate, there’s no shortage of brave people willing to make that trip in my place.
Please share your Challenger memories in the comments below or tweet @crave and @EricCMack.