January 28, 1986 – Were You There?             

 

I was.

First there was this:

Picture

Challenger exhibiting a normal, beautiful and breathtaking launch from the Kennedy Space Center.
Then, seconds later,  there was this: 

Picture

Disaster in the sky above my house.

Now do you remember?

Whether you were ‘there’ or not, most everyone remembers where they were or what they were doing when the shuttle Challenger exploded.  It began as a glorious day full of hope and literally the-sky-is-the-limit bright horizons, and then in the blink of an eye turned into a tragic and dark moment in world history.  And I witnessed it all in person from the privacy of my own backyard here in Florida, a mere 50 miles from the Launchpad.  Which is why I knew something with that launch had gone terribly wrong long before most of the rest of the world.

You see, living this close to KSC, watching rocket or shuttle launches from your own personal vantage point is a common occurrence.  That’s not to say that it ever gets old because it truly doesn’t.  But here in Central Florida, whenever there is an announced launch, most everyone just stops what they’re doing, confirms via TV or radio that ‘it’ has actually left the launch pad, and then saunters outside to face the East Coast.  This is when you watch and wait until the object of that launch is within eyesight.  At first, it’s just an incredibly bright pin-point size glimmer on the horizon.  Then slowly, majestically, you see it climbing.  The vehicle itself appears to be suspended, not moving at all, but you know it is because there’s that tell-tail trace of puffy white vapor that follows it upward, and on crystal clear launch days you can actually see it arch as it starts the inevitable curve around planet earth.  It’s stunning and awesome and simply takes your breath away each and every time.  I don’t know anyone who has ever witnessed a launch and not been able to raise their faith in humanity and the absolute limitless of man’s potential to reach new heights.

Except on this day, the ‘high’ came crashing down leaving most of us with a new understanding of how fragile life can be.  Even when you’re an astronaut and appear to walk on water here on earth and soar among the clouds while in flight.

So on January 28, 1986 as I stood in my backyard at that fateful moment when that single white vapor split into two distinct trails of death, I knew.  I just knew.  I’d seen enough successful launches to know that something had gone awry.  I wanted to run back inside to see what the TV reporters were saying, but I couldn’t move.  I was frozen because all I could think of was that precious, brilliant, and exceptionally gifted lives had just exploded into death right above my own home.
My emotions were high for many reasons, not the least of which was that during this moment in time I was also holding onto my first born, then a tiny toddler, with whom I had wanted to share the viewing of another miraculous launch.  The kind we had become accustomed to having experienced one success after another.  But on this day, whether or not he would remember (and, I’m guessing he won’t), in the middle of that gorgeous, glorious picture-perfect launch, as I held him tight and wanted to share a special here’s-another-awesome-thing-this-world-offers moment, my baby son would also witness his first tragedy of epic proportions.

Of course he was too young to understand, but as the morning progressed I just couldn’t stop myself from going back outside, baby in arms, to look up at the sky.  History has documented that those vapor trails were still present hours later, and those of us living in the Central Florida area certainly knew that to be true.  And as the day wore on and the news became filled with gruesome details and speculation, we knew those fluffy white clouds lingering in the sky above had now been tainted with death and destruction.

And while the rest of this story belongs to history, I still can’t personally get past any January 28 since then without remembering where I was and what I was doing and thinking and experiencing in my own little world at that moment in time.

So earlier this week when I saw the following photo and quote, I decided to make this the focus of my January post even though it meant that, first, I had to share my little story – the detour.  But, ending on a high note is always a good thing, right?  So here’s my tribute to the astronaut within all of us. . .

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Just your average middle age gal trying to deal with career/life/family changes and issues while studying people and places, one lobby bar at a time.

6 thoughts on “January 28, 1986 – Were You There?             

  1. I wasn’t there, but I will never forget where I was. I was in my grade school auditorium/gymnasium watching the live broadcast on TV. This was back in the days when TVs were wheeled in on a cart and we were lucky if they were 24 inch screens. There were several as the whole school was gathered to watch this historic moment, but something went wrong. The kids were confused. Some teachers started to cry. I can’t remember much else (I was just six at the time), but I do remember that much. Sad day. Thanks for sharing your story.

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    1. You’re welcome. I like your recollection of being in school, viewing it with others, and some being confused. It was indeed sad and confusing. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

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  2. I too was watching the lift off from my back yard, holding my newborn and experienced a profound sadness as being a native, I absolutely knew what had just occurred.

    Thank you for remembering these people who gave their lives for the sake of science.

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