Sci-Fi Storm

When the Challenger launched for the last time…

by on Jan.30, 2011, under Science

[This was meant to be posted on Friday, but I wasn’t able to get to it]

January 28th, 1986. I remember right where I was.

I was in my senior year of high school. I grew up like a lot of boys wanting to be an astronaut. Never actually shook it off later on. I followed the space program with rapt attention – given free choice of a book report or term paper, it invariably turned towards space. I had a large amount of materials, books, etc.

I watched intently with my class as the Enterprise test flights took place in grade school. Followed each mission as I could through the years.

In my senior year, I often spent time in the Vice Principal’s office. No, not because I was a troublemaker – I ran the TV productions for the school and all our equipment and a tiny studio was located there. I often ate lunch there instead of the cafeteria – why not, I had full cable TV in there! Since the VP was seldom in the office, it sort of became my own. I actually could, at least unofficially, write passes for students to get out of study hall to come to the office and work on stuff – or just hang around and join me for lunch. We even occasionally took “road trips” to “pick up equipment and parts”. The stores were across the highway from where the school was, but amazingly our trips often detoured via Revere Beach. No other student and his “entourage” could escape the school without getting into trouble.

From my little studio, I also could broadcast over a special “institutional loop” cable system which reached the other schools and administrative offices, and also the cafeteria TV systems. We often played video tapes of football games, occasionally music videos (we had a well-worn copy of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” taped off of MTV), and such. Occasionally we’d feed out live TV.

On Tuesday, January 28th, 1986, everything was routine. I was sitting in the office when one of the juniors came in, sent by the VP, asking to turn the launch of the Space Shuttle on and feed it down to the TVs. I had forgotten! This was the launch that featured Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire school teacher selected out of more than 11,000 that applied. One of our own teachers had applied – we often teased him about not getting selected.

I hooked up the cable box to the uplink, turned on CNN, switched over, and watched the launch.

73 seconds later…I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at the monitor in silence. I don’t know how long I sat there. I don’t know if anyone else in the room did. I don’t even know if I went to my next class – I don’t recall anything else that day.

A fatality in the space program was basically unknown to me. Apollo 1 happened before I was born. Since then, there were no NASA fatalities involved directly in space vehicles (there were two training fatalities, also before I was born). The dangers of spaceflight suddenly became real.

I think the VP sent word down to cut the feed, and I just turned it all off. Nothing else was sent down the wire that day. Nothing could.


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