On this date 25 years ago, I was a third year student at Northern Illinois University. It was the year before I got the infamous basement apartment that has begotten so much of the lore that is still associated with my college years, but the year after I moved out of the Stevenson Towers dorms on the other side of campus. There were a group of seven of us that moved into a house on College Avenue right next to the campus radio station, just past the Kishwaukee River and the East Lagoon. I only stayed for a year, but it was not because I didn’t like the people I was living with, it was more a need to live a less communal life. The reason I moved out of the dorm was to be more independent, and living in that house with six other people still had the feel of structure I was looking to get away from.
On this particular Tuesday morning, I had actually started my day early because I wanted to watch the space shuttle take off. I was never really a space buff, but I do have fuzzy memories of sitting with my dad and watching rockets take off. I would assume these would have been the last of the Apollo missions or possibly the Space Lab missions, like I said, they are a bit fuzzy. Once the Space Shuttle program started, we would watch anything we could. From the early days of those take offs from the back of a Boeing 747, to the actual first flight into space of the original shuttle Columbia in April of 1981, the idea of travel is space fascinated me. There was also another reason to watch this particular launch, and her name was Christa McAuliffe.
The Teacher in Space Program was conceived as a way to inspire students to achieve excellence in math and science, and to increase interest in the space program. After President Ronald Reagan announced the program, more than 11,000 teachers from across the country applied for the honor of being the first civilian in space. It took more than a year to slim down the candidates, but the eventual winner was a social studies teacher from Concord, New Hampshire named Christa McAuliffe, and suddenly the unassuming 37-year-old was the newest American star.
The additional excitement created a greater than normal interest in this particular launch, as schools around the country set up screening rooms to watch. I was watching from our living room there in DeKalb, but the original launch time was delayed. The frigid temperatures that morning in Florida caused some concern, and they kept pushing back the lift off time. I had a 10:30 class, so I was a little impatient as each delay pushed me closer and closer to the point of missing it. Finally, when I knew I could wait no longer, and obviously in some regards too late, I had to make a dash for class.
Since I was already running late, I grabbed my bike and trekked out into the snow. Peddling as fast as I could, I crossed halfway across campus to Cole Hall. Already late, I dumped my bike and rushed into the oversized lecture hall, only to be greeted by an image that has become way too familiar over the past 25 years. The screen at the front of the room had been pulled down, and the class was watching the news of the Challenger launching. I remember my first thoughts being frustration, because if I had known we would be watching it in class, I would have left early and not missed it. And then it took about another ten seconds for me to realize what I was actually watching. The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded upon take off, killing all of those on board. And it all happened live on TV.
The Challenger disaster was indeed a turning point in the history of the world. It would be another fifteen years before we all watched in horror as the World Trade Center collapsed in front of our eyes, but this was the world first live disaster. It was some years earlier, in 1963 that the world watched Jack Ruby kill Oswald in that dark, black and white live broadcast from the Dallas police department, and the late sixties and seventies gave us the most graphic coverage of a war ever, as all three of the major networks brought Vietnam right into our living rooms, but the Challenger was more personal, and it was live and in color and bigger than life. We all knew the name, and in just 73 seconds we all saw it just vanish.
It was almost too silent in Cole Hall that morning. People just sat in silence. A few weeps could be heard. Even the voice coming over the speakers from the projected images in front of us was too soft. After 25 years, I still remember the empty feeling of that day. So much has happened since that time. The expansion of entire news networks has put us in a front row seat to history. Even as I write this we are watching changes in the Middle East as protesters riot in Egypt. We watched the ravages of hurricanes, and the terror of students fleeing shootings at their high school. We even watched this event repeat itself almost seventeen years later to the date, when the Space Shuttle Columbia shattered upon reenter on February 1, 2003. Little did I know way back in 1986, that Cole Hall itself would become the sight of yet another tragedy as a gunman killed six, including himself, right there in that same auditorium on February 14, 2008.
Despite the tragedy, the Space Shuttle program is still very active today, although seemingly less publicized. There are currently three space shuttles still in service today. Discovery, Atlantis, and the Challenger’s replacement Endeavour. Discovery is scheduled to fly again in about a month, and Endeavour is scheduled for launch again in April, although it may have to fly without its commander Mark Kelly. He has been tending to his wife, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who was shot on January 8th in Tucson Arizona.
Today’s memory is for the crew of the Challenger. Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnick, Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Michael Smith, and Ellison Onizuka all gave their life for our country and the pursuit of knowledge and exploration. It would have been a shame if their story had been the end of the line for the space program, and somehow I think they would be proud that it was not. The name Challenger has been fused into our collective memory, and as soon as I realized that today was the anniversary of that event, I was transferred instantly back to the very day it happened. Twenty-five years have faded the shock, but the honor of those brave travelers will live on forever.