Friday, January 28, 2005

The Challenger disaster

January 28, 1986. I had completed one semester of college, and now our between-semester break was nearly over. I decided to take advantage of the privilege of the recently-graduated-from-high-school and return to my alma mater to wander the halls.

I left the house sometime in the midmorning for the two-block walk to my old high school. Our three-year-old dog, Kitty, was a highly intelligent, extremely empathic mix with a smooth shiny coat of short black hair and a fairly excitable disposition. When I left the house that day I was leaving her by herself, and she ran into my bedroom to jump halfway onto my dresser, stick her head through the curtains, and see me off.

These were different times. Columbine was still over 13 years in the future; mass murder of students was something that never crossed the minds of members of Generation X.* Some vague security was in place at the high school, but I don't even remember if I had to sign the book of any sort of door warder. (I know such things existed back then because I had logged quite a few study hall periods in my Junior year sitting in a desk by the main doors, reading the Dune series and demanding that any people entering the premises sign in.)

My visit was uneventful. I stopped by to see a few teachers who were running study halls or otherwise not particularly busy. I ran into someone who had graduated with me, whose car was crashed into in the parking lot during his visit. I returned home sometime after noon, turned on the TV, and made lunch.

January 28th was a cold, clear day, as far as I recall, but I didn't understand why a few of the cable channels had the same image displayed on their screens, of what appeared to be an extreme closeup of a snow-covered branch with icicles hanging from it. I switched on MTV and watched some music videos** as I ate lunch. Eventually I got bored and changed the channel, where I saw more pictures of the branch-with-icicles thing. I knew something was up. I switched on CNN (I think) where the anchor was intoning solemnly "and, 74 seconds after liftoff, the space shuttle Challenger exploded."

Oh, my, God.

My next thought was: I forgot there was a launch today.

My next thought after that was: I need to let somebody know.

I picked up the phone and got silence. No dial tone, no nothing. Was the phone dead? Were the circuits overloaded? I tried pressing a few buttons and got tones. So the phone was working. What was going on?

I went into my bedroom. My phone was laying on the floor, off the hook. When my dog had jumped up to watch me leave the house, she had knocked the phone down and off the hook. I hung it up, ran out to the kitchen, picked up the receiver, got dial tone this time, and started making calls.

I probably called my mother at work first. I think she already knew - by this time it was well over an hour since the event. I called my grandmother, who also already knew, and had been trying to call me since she saw it happen live, but kept getting a busy signal.

I spent the rest of the day and much of the night switching between channels, trying to piece together the story, trying to get news, trying to figure out just what had happened. I switched back to MTV every once in a while, where I saw their launching-space-shuttle-and-man-on-the-moon promo a few more times before somebody realized that they had to pull it.*** Around 3:00 in the morning I decided that there would not be very much more being reported overnight, and finally turned in.

The rest is, literally, history.****

There are moments that exist as snapshots of our collective memory. My parents' generation remembers exactly what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was shot on November 23, 1963. Anyone able to read this in 2005 can probably tell you precisely where they were on September 11, 2001. The date of the Challenger disaster is another one of those moments, and one that I will never forget.

*Mainly because we were too lazy to engage in such strenuous activity.

**MTV actually stands for "Music Television", and back in 1986 they still dedicated much of their programming day to what were known as "music videos". These were entertaining short films set to the popular songs of the day, and can still be seen between the hours of 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning two or three times a week.

***I don't think the space shuttle promo was ever used again, although the "moonman" was incorporated into the trophy given at the Video Music Awards each year. (As a sub-footnote, I must note that it's entirely possible that there never was a space shuttle in the promo, and it was in fact one of the Apollo missions that was shown. This would make sense, since the next image was of the moonman raising the MTV flag on the moon.)

****Read, if you can, Appendix F, written by uber-Physicist Richard Feynman.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember the night before that i was playing the DuckTales nintendo game and I was thinking how cool it be to go in space, and I just couldnt understand how they let a teacher go. I really dont think i thought she did any training I thought she had 'won' the oppurtunity to go. I remember I just couldn't understand how she was allowed to do that.
I remember it snowed that night and my mom let me and my brother stay home and my brother called me in while i was shoveling to tell me. It was the first disaster or big tragedy that i had witnessed at 12 years old. I had never fealt anything like that before, I was sad and wondered how they could let that happen, and i also thought what sh*tty luck it was for the teacher to have won the trip. But mostly I didnt know what to do, go back outside shovel, go sledding, watch MTV? It might have been my first Life stops for a second then it moves on moments.
Also, the movie Spacecamp was suppossed to be released that month and was pushed to a summer release, surprisingly it failed. Must have been a bad year for Lea Thompson Spacecamp and Howard the Duck.