In the 80s, our “Where were you when” moment was the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. The explosion occurred 73 seconds after liftoff, and I watched it happen on live TV along with so many other Americans. It really sucks when a source of national pride becomes a national tragedy. The accident was the result of rapid deceleration and not combustion of fuel. I wasn’t sure what that meant and honestly I still don’t quite understand the science but it resulted in boom and death. Like in superhero action movies, only it was real life and it happened to our heroes.
I was in 6th grade, my senior year at the immigrant public school, and one of the perks was we were allowed to leave for lunch. On Fridays, I went with the cool kids three blocks up 108th Street in Forest Hills to the Kosher pizzeria. The pizza sauce was too sweet, the soda was too flat and the better pizza was clearly across the street, but this was exponential social progress or me. This was a Tuesday, so I went across the street to my grandmother’s house for lunch, and indulged in some sort of cream cheese sandwich.
“3-2-1 and liftoff of the 25th Space Shuttle mission and it is as clear as the tower.” Those are the words that start the short video of one of our country’s worst space disasters. It took 73 seconds to get to the climax of the video. An explosion in the sky that forms a huge Y shape of thick, white smoke. As we stared at uncertainty, there was an announcement: “It looks like a couple of the solid rocket boosters blew away from the side of the shuttle in an explosion. Flight controllers here are looking carefully at the situation. Obviously there was a major malfunction.” These words seem to echo off the metal bleachers at Kennedy Space Station and directly into all of our living rooms.
We continued watching these mysterious falling pieces of the shuttle. It was like were in some parallel universe, witnessing the end of the world’s largest fireworks show where the sky started bleeding, weeping willow explosions, long tears down into the water below it. Cameras continued to pan on spectators: astronauts’ wives? Press? Nasa co-workers? People craned their necks far back and shield their eyes with their hands.
Onlookers were in a collective state of frenzy, confusion and shock. The TV showed us the beautiful all-American proud parents of Christa McAuliffe, the poor teacher. The mom stood with her faux fur-trimmed winter coat, the dad with his campaign-like pin on his lapel bearing his daughter’s smiling face. They were witnessing the obliteration of their daughter’s life in slow motion. Life’s greatest torture, to watch your children die in front of you. A group of boys (students?) in red baseball hats, looked dumbfounded and almost disoriented to the state of the world.
Less than three minutes after the 3-2-1 and it is confirmed: “We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. We’re checking with recovery forces to see what can be done at this point. We’ll report more as we have information available.”
Some couples started hustling off, gripping each other, holding onto each other arms to stay vertical. Others collapse in place, weeping. A child is screaming for his father. A wife collapses into a man next to her. People are holding their heads, covering their eyes, sobbing. Our brains scrambled for explanations or miracles. Some stared hopefully into the sky, as if, when the smoke cleared, the heroes would come floating down to safety on parachutes a la James Bond or Mission Impossible.
The Challenger was the first major American disaster I can remember witnessing and understanding. It was also the first catastrophe that showed me flaws in our newly-adopted country. For our first six glorious Reagan years, we were optimistic, comfortable, and safe in our new homeland. After the nation experienced such adversity, we bonded and united, in a common mourning period and it inadvertently put our national pride on parade.
After September 11th, I saw a similar communal tragedy atmosphere effect in New York City. It’s as if we would all, understandably suffer from PTSD together, and as if in a synchronized motion, we all duck when we see a plane flying near a tall building.
How do we un-see something when it becomes tattooed on our memory?
Aside from the movie Apollo 13, I avoid space shuttle launches. What 9/11 did to me with airplanes, the Challenger crash had done to me with space craft. A countdown is always followed by holding my breath, and waiting for a boom.