That was the last recorded word of Challenger shuttle pilot Michael J. Smith. Today is the 20th anniversary of the Challenger explosion, and it's sort of hard to believe that that much time has elapsed. This event was one of those "where were you?" moments in my life. The launch of the shuttle happened at 11:38 a.m., and I was attending Arizona State University at the time, two hours to the west. My college roommate, Brian, and I had just woken up, and Brian, who had turned on his TV, told me to come watch. The news broadcast was similar to that of the coverage for 9/11, with the endless repeating of the shuttle blowing up, over and over again, in the frigid, clear blue Florida sky.
As a child, I had always wanted to be an astronaut. I was fascinated by rockets launching and astronauts walking on the moon, and I had really, really wanted to be up there in space with them. When I was in junior high school, we read the short story, The Man Without a Country by Edward Everett Hale. Afterwards, my English teacher had us write an essay, to imagine ourselves being like Philip Nolan, living the rest of our life in a state of exile except that, instead of life aboard a Navy ship, we would live aboard Skylab, the American space station that had been - at the time - recently launched into orbit. Of course, to me, that thought wasn't a penalty, a punishment, but a marvelous idea and I wrote about how my life would be so wonderful if I could live forever aboard Skylab. (Or, at least, until it came down to Earth, burning up in the atmosphere and killing a cow. ;) ) Needless to say, my English teacher didn't appreciate my youthful exuberance. (BTW, a woman from my hometown, Eileen Collins, did become an astronaut and has made several trips into space. I'm very happy for her as she's been able to live out my childhood fantasy. I do wish I could join her for one flight, though. ;) )
The Challenger 51-L flight was famous for more than just its spectacular demise. This was also the flight of Christa McAuliffe, the teacher from Concord High School (Concord, NH), who had been selected for NASA's Teacher in Space program. McAuliffe, who had beat out over 11,500 other applicants, was scheduled to teach two lessons from the space shuttle. It was largely because of McAuliffe's death, whom the nation had gotten to know so well in the months preceding the launch, that the tragedy of the Challenger explosion seemed to be magnified.
"You have to dream. We all have to dream. Dreaming is okay. Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people's lives. That's a teacher's dream! I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history!"
-- Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe
Just prior to the Challenger tragedy, Voyager 2 had passed by the planet of Uranus, discovering a total of ten small moons between 30 December 1985 and 23 January 1986. These discoveries, significant by themselves (and which would have made big news at any other time), were largely ignored due to Challenger. While there were a number of proposals to have the new moons around Uranus named after the Challenger astronauts (and also that of the dead Apollo 1 astronauts, Roger Chaffee, Ed White, and Gus Grissom), the Challenger crew did have craters on the moon - and some asteroids - named after them.
Today, on the 20th anniversary of the death of the Challenger 51-L crew, I want to close by saying, "You are not forgotten. I honor your courage, and pray that Allah (swt) forgives you your sins and accepts you into Jannah in the Hereafter."
In the memory of Francis R. "Dick" Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory Jarvis, and Sharon Christa Corrigan McAuliffe:
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air....
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew—
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
"High Flight," John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
For more links on Challenger 51-L and its crew, please see:
The Crew of the Challenger Shuttle Mission in 1986
Space Shuttle Mission Chronology for Challenger 51-L
JSC Digital Image Collection for STS-51L*
Joseph Kerwin's report on how the Challenger astronauts died**
President Reagan's Address to the Nation
Senator John Glenn's Remarks at the Memorial Service for Judith Resnik
The Transcript of the Challenger Crew from the Operational Recorder
- 1: There are 250 images in this collection, so it makes sense to change the "Results per Page" number up to 50 or so.
- 2: The Challenger astronauts apparently didn't die due to the blast from the external fuel tank's explosion, but either from a loss of oxygen after the Challenger disintegrated or from the flight cabin's impact into the Atlantic Ocean.