Thursday, January 28, 2016

January 28, 1986

Thirty years ago, I can remember waking up, throwing on some clothes and heading to class.  As a college student there were many late nights and mornings that were rushed because I had overslept.  January 28th was no different.  After my class, I was heading back to my dorm when I noticed people talking to each other more than usual.  As I was going up the elevator to the 9th floor dorm where I lived, I hear the horrifying news.

My parents took us on a trip around the United States when I was 11 in 1978. I remember visiting the Badlands, the Gettysburg battlefield, walked around Independence Hall and touched the Liberty bell.  I remember seeing the Capitol and White House, visiting Arlington and Arlington Cemetery and seeing Mount Vernon.  I remember sitting by the ocean in Charleston, riding through a rainstorm in the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and enjoying all the rides and sights at Disney World.  One thing that I remember most clearly was visiting Cape Canaveral.  I am not sure I understood the significance of the Saturn rocket that was there on display…I just remember that it was huge. There were all kind of things that were interesting and new to me.  Everything that I had seen thus far on the trip represented the natural world or something from history.  I saw sitting on the tarmac on display, the Enterprise, which was the prototype for the shuttle program.  That was something that made an impression on me, for I was told that pretty soon, a shuttle would go up into space and then come back down and land on the ground like a plane.  You have to understand that I was of an age that I didn’t remember the Mercury or the Gemini space programs.  I was either not alive or too young for it to make an impression on me.  This was something that I was excited to experience and represented the future of NASA.

In 1982, the first Shuttle, Columbia, took off for space.  I remember watching it on television and thinking how cool it was to see the blastoff.  By the time the Challenger took off on Jan 28 1986, it was something that was almost “old hat!”  I knew about Christa McAuliffe as the first teacher in space, but I didn’t know any of the other astronaut’s names.  When I got back to my room that morning of the 28th of January in 1986, the first thing I did was turn on the television.  I sat there in horror watching the blast off of the shuttle and the explosion just a short time later.  It was being rebroadcast over and over again, all the time with the newscasters saying that recovery efforts were being undertaken.  I was not so naive to think anyone could have survived that terrible day.  There are pictures from that day that I have never been able to get out of my mind.  The horror on the faces of the crowd watching the takeoff…especially that of Christa McAuliffe’s parents…or the faces of the students who were so excited and then so traumatized.  The picture that has always stayed in my mind was that of the astronauts as they strode confidently out to the bus that was to take them to the Challenger as they were preparing for liftoff.

For the rest of my life…whenever I hear the quote “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God!” that Reagan used in his speech on TV.  I have to say that of everything that I heard said or done during that week…that quote was strangely comforting.  The lines came from a poem by John Gillespie Magee, Jr, a pilot who was killed in action in 1941 while flying a Spitfire as an RAF pilot.  The poem “High Flight” was enclosed in a letter to his parents shortly before his death. 
Over the next months and years, we learned what happened to the Challenger and NASA tried to fix what was broken and on Sept 29, 1988, the Discovery took off to restart the Shuttle program.  I never became blas√© about the shuttle again and was sad to see another accident happen in 2003 when Columbia blew apart during re-entry.  When the last shuttle, Atlantis, flew its last mission on July 8, 2011, it was sad to me to see it end.  It was the first NASA program that I had seen the first flight and the touchdown of the last flight. 

Me (Carmen Johnson) in my dorm room.
There are only a few times in my life that events have happened that I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the news and what I was feeling.   The Challenger explosion is one of those times.  I was in an elevator in the Theophilus Tower at the University of Idaho going up to my dorm named Neely Hall on the 9th floor.  Once I entered my room and turned my television on and watched the video, it was forever part of my memory.

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