On January 28, 1986, during the one of the hourly, ten minute breaks that is a feature of any classroom technical training in the military—in this case I was at DLI learning German--I turned from getting my morning coffee to watch the television as the Challenger was making its ascent. Suddenly—
I’ll never forget the wide eyes, the open mouths that were suddenly a feature of every face in the room; the ‘Oh-my-Gods’ that issued from nearly every mouth. DLI hosts students from each service and nearly all of its language instructors are civilian native-speakers. So it was that in the room I was in, Air Force, Army, Marine, Navy and civilian alike stood stunned—some in tears—as the fate of the Challenger’s crew slowly dawned on the mind of each individual observer.
At the time, I thought no disaster could be so universally traumatic to witness. We all know differently now, of course.
Whenever I have thought of the Challenger disaster, I can’t help but think of the lone civilian member of the crew, Christa McAuliffe. Most of us who were adults then recall the media blitz immediate preceding Mrs. McAuliffe’s mission. As the first civilian (a teacher) to go into space, there was a lot of excitement—and, yes, hype—surrounding the lady’s presence on the Challenger. However, one report stands out in my mind: some interviewer asked Mrs. McAuliffe’s young daughter, Caroline—around five or six at the time—how she felt about her mother going into space. The poor kid was afraid that her mother would never come back.
Over these many years, I have wondered how the now-young woman has been doing and have sent up a prayer for her every now and then, along with all of the others.
Not long after the Columbia disaster, my mother, who works for a Big Media organization, had occasion to meet a brother of one of the crew of the last mission. The upshot of his attitude was this: he hurt and he missed his sister, but he was, at the same time, at peace. His sister died doing something that she loved, had dreamed about and trained for nearly all of her life, and she had been making a positive contribution to her society and to its future.
That’s all any of us can aspire to.
UPDATE: Dr. Sanity was there.