Saturday, January 28, 2006

Remembering the Challenger

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. While this tragedy pales historically to 9/11, it was the preeminent invulnerability-piercing moment of its day. I remember exactly where I was when I heard about it.

By strapping a teacher on board the Challenger, NASA was trying to normalize space travel in the public relations sense. Christa McAuliffe may have known about the risks, but the rest of us were used to uneventful launches and landings that didn't even get shown on live TV anymore. Hell, there was talk about letting Walter Cronkite and even John Denver go up on the shuttle. (turns out the latter should've taken the hint and stayed away from experimental flying altogether).

So I was genuinely taken aback when my high school buddy John Bowie came up to me after third period and said, "Dude, the shuttle blew up!" Fourth period was lunchtime, so we decided to drive over to my house and watch it on TV.

We got into John's car and turned the radio on. Top 40 powerhouse 93Q ran a special bulletin about the Challenger and followed it up with "Sara" by Starship. To this day, I can't hear that song without thinking of "Roger, go at throttle up" (not that I liked it much to begin with). Seeing the shuttle come apart over and over again was bad enough, but the really scarring footage was of McAuliffe's parents looking skyward and slowly coming to the realization that something had gone horribly wrong.

Being in Houston, the space program was a huge point of municipal pride, not to mention an economic boon. The astronauts trained right down the road at Johnson Space Center. The shuttle was grounded for more than two years, which was salt on the wound of an economy already tanked by falling oil prices.

When Columbia blew apart over Texas in 2003, it just wasn't as big a shock. No one was feeling particularly invulnerable anymore by the time that happened.


Karla said...

I was in drama class when someone came in and told the teacher, M.A. Valenta. We all ran out into the cafeteria to watch it on TV (the ONLY time I ever spent time in the cafeteria, ever, at Bellaire.)

WE spent the rest of the day wandering aroudn the school, stunned. No classes got anything done that day....

snax said...

One of the few significant events where I remember where I was - working at the first La Madeleine Bakery in Houston located on Westheimer. I thought someone had messed with the radio, because the usual soft jazz music was replaced by news chatter. Once the realization sank in, Marie-France, the assistant manager's wife, locked herself in the office for twenty minutes and cried.
Columbia was less of an emotional effect, but I know a few folks from state agencies who had to walk the woods with GPS. Some water supplies had to be tested for perchlorate and other VOCs due to wreckage landing near their raw water intake.

Anonymous said...

Not that this is anything to brag about, but I watched the Challenger explode live on TV. I was on my way out of the house to class at Brazosport College, when my mother, who hadn't gone to work yet, called to me and asked if I wanted to watch the shuttle take off before I left. I had a few minutes to spare, so I did. I sat down just in time to watch it take off and blow up. It was awful.

Needless to say, it was the big topic of conversation at school. I didn't want to talk about it.


BB said...

I got my driver's license that day. I'd been old enough for a while, but procrastinated. I heard the news on the radio as I left the DPS office. Most everyone on the road turned on their headlights, I guess as some sort of show of respect. This was back in the days before daytime running lights (or whatever they're called).

I forgot to turn mine off once I got to school. So after a bad, depressing day of classes, I went out to find my battery dead.