Sixth grade. 1986. I had the coolest feathered hair, apparently still liked teddy bears, and wore long, dangly earrings. I mean, it was 1986, who didn’t? (If you look very closely at my sixth grade photo below, you may be able to ascertain that the earrings are actually a rotary phone and the dangly part is the receiver. What can I say? I was cutting edge…What’s a rotary phone, you say? Well, it was “so 1986” is all you whippersnappers need to know. CUTTING EDGE, I SAY.) But I digress.
My family had made a big move from Moore, Oklahoma to Winter Park, Florida over Halloween of my fifth grade year. At first, it was extremely difficult leaving the only place I really remembered as being my home, not to mention our church, my friends, my school and everything that was familiar because Oklahoma was my world. That kind of move is extremely dramatic to a fifth grader.
Living in Florida did have its perks, I soon found out, as my family spent our first Thanksgiving in Florida having a picnic lunch on the sand of Daytona Beach. We had the beautiful, sandy space to ourselves, watching the waves crash and seagulls flying overhead as we munched on sandwiches and chips on a blanket. Also, now that we were official Florida residents, we qualified for a special season pass to Walt Disney World & Epcot Center…guys, it was $30 per person and we could go as often as we wanted during their three slowest months. Um…hello perk! (And hello 1986!) Guess how we spent our days off school?? Speaking of school, Aloma Elementary was a pretty cool school, too. I was boy crazy for these Florida surfer types, participated in musical and theatrical productions put on by our school, joined a competitive gymnastics team at the local Y, and looked forward to the Sixth Grade field trip in January to Cape Canaveral, Florida – the Kennedy Space Center.
Teachers and students all across America had eyes on Florida that week, as this particular NASA mission had a teacher named Christa McAuliffe joining the crew. History was being made by putting the first private citizen in space. Teacher Christa McAuliffe trained with the astronaut crew and prepared educational lessons that would be broadcast from space. Pretty stinkin’ cool. Our sixth grade field trip to the Kennedy Space Center was scheduled for a day that the Challenger might launch. We had the chance to literally be on site as the rocket blasted out of the atmosphere, rumbling the earth below us and breaking the sound barrier above us. I said might launch because lift-off had been scheduled since January 22, but the Challenger did not pass all necessary inspections the previous days, some of which were weather-related. Our group of sixth graders loaded busses on January 27 and unloaded with numerous other excited school groups at the Kennedy Space Center. We found out early into our morning that the Challenger had not been cleared to launch on January 27th, so instead of spending much of our field trip outside as close to the launch pad as possible, we spent most of it inside the (much warmer) Kennedy Space Center, soaking up exhibitions, models and dreaming of being an astronaut (or a teacher in space) someday ourselves. It was glorious.
So the NEXT day, on January 28th, 1986, back at Aloma Elementary, my classmates and I learned that the Challenger HAD BEEN CLEARED TO LAUNCH, so all sixth grade classes took their lunches outside during our designated lunch hour, and pointed our eyes to the sky. Around 11:28 am we watched what looked like a small rocket (from where we sat in the school yard playground) and a smoke plume following it, both rising higher and higher through the blue sky. We were close enough to hear the sonic boom with our own ears as the shuttle broke the atmospheric barrier. After that, I thought I was seeing the rocket boosters separate from the shuttle, as two separate smoke spirals made their way out of the original one. A few short minutes later, we filed back into our classroom and the TV/VCR cart was up front. In 1986 the classrooms were not equipped with TV’s, so seeing that cart meant we would be watching an “educational” movie on a VHS tape. Except this time it didn’t.
Our teacher was somber. It was at that moment that I learned from her that the two spirals I had seen were, in fact, NOT the rocket boosters separating, but the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding and debris falling back to Earth. All seven occupants of the shuttle were declared dead. The mood changed drastically as we spent the remainder of the day watching news report after news report of this tragedy, which occurred in the exact same spot we had been at 24 hours earlier. We whispered disbelief to each other, wondering how this could happen, mourning Christa McAullife, who we all felt connected with, although we did not know her. We felt personally intertwined with this tragedy, having studied the crew and the Space Program for weeks prior to our field trip with excitement building, THEN having been on site on the day it “almost” launched and THEN watching it from the schoolyard the day it did launch and finding out it ultimately exploded in front of our eyes. We sat with all of America in stunned silence.
I went on a field trip on January 27, 1986 that changed me forever. What I watched happen in the sky on January 28th, 1986 was an absolutely terrible, harrowing loss for ourselves as individuals and as Americans.
But how this experience changed me may might not be what you think.
That field trip changed me forever by:
- Teaching me that Americans pull together in crisis, every time, exhibiting an indescribable united spirit; that America is beautiful.
- Introducing me to tragedy, grief and loss in a way that helped me navigate through other times in my life that I’ve had to deal with these issues on a more personal level.
- Showing me that heroes do exist, and a lot of times they look like ordinary people.
- Allowing me to still be fascinated by something amazing like space exploration, despite one gigantic and tragic public failure.
- Letting me know, that despite tragedy, taking risks can still be worth it.
As President Reagan said in his speech to the nation that night, “I want to say something to the schoolchildren of America who were watching the live coverage of the shuttle’s takeoff. I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery. It’s all a part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizon’s. The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
So I say, whether you’re a sixth grader of a forty-something adult, let’s honor this 30th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster by encouraging each other with this mantra:
Let’s Be Brave.