25 years ago…

The tears still come easily, even today.

Twenty-five years ago, I sat in a classroom, like millions of other children, eyes glued to a television screen at the front of the room. The principal and other front office staff were in our room too since we were closest to their offices.
Ignition… Liftoff!
I was biting my fingernails. The teacher selected first to be in space, along with six other crew members, was lifted into the heavens, riding on seven million pounds of thrust. The calm voice of the announcer, already lulled into complacency by the incident-free minute after launch: “So the twenty-fifth shuttle launch is on the way, after more delays than NASA cares to count. This morning it looked like they were not going to be able to get off…”

Then the fireball erupted. I heard, “Is that the next stage?” from an adult behind me. I knew they were gone. I had watched every launch since I could remember – some replayed later on the news if they happened while I was in school. I had all of the stages memorized. I had a miniature shuttle. I was planning to be a mission specialist. I sat rigid in shock, willing that my eyes had deceived me, but I knew they hadn’t. Children chattered unconcernedly around me.

“Obviously a major malfunction.”

“We have no down link.”

then finally:

“We have a report from the flight dynamics director that the vehicle has exploded.”

They opened the classrooms after lunch so those who wished could watch the rapidly-organized memorial service on television.
I was the only student sitting in my classroom. The principal sat next to me.
That evening, President Ronald Reagan gave a speech in place of his planned State of the Union Address. I’ve decided to reproduce it in its entirety.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I’d planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans. Today is a day for mourning and remembering. Nancy and I are pained to the core by the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss.

Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But, we’ve never lost an astronaut in flight; we’ve never had a tragedy like this. And perhaps we’ve forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle; but they, the Challenger Seven, were aware of the dangers, but overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. We mourn their loss as a nation together.

For the families of the seven, we cannot bear, as you do, the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we’re thinking about you so very much. Your loved ones were daring and brave, and they had that special grace, that special spirit that says, ‘Give me a challenge and I’ll meet it with joy.’ They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.
 We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

And 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 part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.

I’ve always had great faith in and respect for our space program, and what happened today does nothing to diminish it. We don’t hide our space program. We don’t keep secrets and cover things up. We do it all up front and in public. That’s the way freedom is, and we wouldn’t change it for a minute. We’ll continue our quest in space. There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space. Nothing ends here; our hopes and our journeys continue. I want to add that I wish I could talk to every man and woman who works for NASA or who worked on this mission and tell them: “Your dedication and professionalism have moved and impressed us for decades. And we know of your anguish. We share it.”

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, ‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’ Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honoured us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’

Thank you.

President Ronald Reagan – January 28, 1986

Michael Smith
Dick Scobee
Judith Resnik
Ronald McNair
Ellison Onizuka
Gregory Jarvis
Christa McAuliffe
Memory Eternal!

5 thoughts on “25 years ago…

  1. I went to work in the town where Christa McAuliffe used to live, about a year after the explosion. The whole town had been caught up in the excitement of her being chosen and preparing for her mission. The whole town was knocked sideways by her death. When I heard the report this morning, I was thinking about her children. She left them for almost a year to train for the mission, and they never got her back. Twenty-five years — they must be in their thirties now. Their father remarried quietly a few years after she died. I hope their stepmother was able to fill some of the emptiness caused by the loss of their mother.


  2. I'll never forget that day either. I was working in a temp job and somebody had a TV on. The thought of family members watching it happen has always been especially painful. Memory Eternal.

    (And I remember the Grissom-Chaffee-White tragedy too. In fact, I think I still have a newspaper from that.)


  3. I remember that day. I was a junior in college. My high school gifted teacher (and very good friend) was one of the 2 finalists from Pennsylvania. She was there that morning, watching the launch (She is in the crowd in the CNN video.). On her way to the launch, she mailed me a postcard with a picture of Challenger on it. I received it in the mail two days later. I found out later that if the flight had been successful, I would have received a patch she had sent up on the shuttle. That was the first time I was happy she wasn't selected to be the teacher in space.


  4. I recall that day to well–Knowing how you loved the far reaches of the earth and had been fascinated with space, my heart broke for you as I watched this historic moment. You were so different from most children–always learning more–reaching beyond your years-so excited that a TEACHER!! would be invited to participate in space travel. It was like she was your own teacher. Thanks for the memorial. Mrs. McAuliffe would be proud of you.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s