Sunday, 28 July 2013

The Challenger Tragedy: Do you remember where you were?

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated before I was born, but everyone who was alive and aware at the time can tell you where they were when they heard the news. The same goes for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For my generation, one of those moments was the day in 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

“Oh no.”
It was first semester of Grade 11 during final exams. It was Jan. 28, 1986. Most mornings I spent all or part of a spare I had that semester in Ed Ryan’s office. He was our high school guidance counselor and a mentor to me.

That day we were talking about hockey, when his phone rang. He picked it up, listened a moment, then half out loud mumbled, “Oh no. It just …”

I thought I heard him say “it blew up”, but I couldn’t be sure. If so, what blew up? By then, Shuttle missions were routine and no longer drew that many front-page headlines. In fact the footage above is the only live broadcast that occurred of this mission, Challenger's 10th and the shuttle program's 25th.

He hung up and told me that was his wife. Sheila Ryan was the news director for CJOC-Radio in Lethbridge. She told her husband the Challenger had blown up.

With our own eyes
At that moment, we scrambled upstairs to the library where Mr. Kanashiro, the school librarian, had the TV going. That was the first time I saw the footage with my own eyes that was seared into all our minds. It was the Shuttle sailing through the air toward outer space then bursting into flames with pieces hurtling in various directions leaving trails of smoke.

By the time I got home, it was all over the news, from Entertainment Tonight to The National. That’s where I learned about the true tragedy of the situation.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
In back from left are Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe,
Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnick; while in front from
left are Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.
These astronauts were not unknown: Judy Resnick, was the second female astronaut; and Christa McAuliffe was set to be the first teacher in space.

I kept wondering if they were alive when it blew up, then died in the crash into the ocean. I tried to imagine the horror of being trapped in that small space. There was nowhere to go. Over the days and months to follow, various ideas and hypotheses came out about those final minutes.

There would be no shuttle missions for 32 moths, and a thorough investigation was conducted. As in tragedies such as this, there was plenty of blame to go around.

It was sad, and grounded the program for years. We all came to believe they learned from the tragedy. It could never happen again right? Well it would.

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