A while back, I blogged about watching the first space shuttle launch while standing in a small patch of trees lining the water across from Cape Canaveral. I had no idea what my dad was so excited about or why he kept making us look at the island across the way so we didn’t miss anything. When the shuttle launched and we watched it with our own eyes—striving for the sky, reaching for space in a way no one had ever reached before—I understood. It was an amazing experience, and one I’m extremely grateful for.
I was also living in Florida when we lost Challenger.
[Note: Originally, I wrote this post thinking that Challenger was returning when it was lost. I was writing based only on childhood memory and while I was upset. I’ve updated the post to more accurately reflect what actually happened.]
I was in band class. There wasn’t as much fanfare as with other expeditions. Space shuttles launched, space shuttles came back. Florida is so flat that even where we lived we could look up and watch the shuttles flying through the pristine blue skies when they took off or landed (it looked a lot like a contrail from a jet, but my dad was always quick to point out that these were special).
I was more aware of Challenger’s journey because a teacher was on board and my own teachers talked about that in class quite a bit. They were so excited for her. We all were. It gave us hope that maybe someday it could be us circling the planet and having an amazing adventure.
The principle came over the loudspeaker and his voice sounded strange and tight. He had to clear his throat to get the words out. I don’t remember what he said, I just remember the somberness of his voice, all of us dropping our instruments and running outside.
Instead of a contrail, there was a huge white cloud in an otherwise completely clear sky.
No fire. No sound. Just a spot of fluffy white smoke. It looked so innocuous. We couldn’t believe it signified the death of seven people.
They sent us home early. How could anyone focus on anything else after that? We talked with our families and cried for theirs.
I was so young. It was the first time I realized that pursuing a dream can carry risks. Consequences. It was the first time I really understood how brave those people were—and everyone else who pushes the boundaries of human experience. And how important it is to keep going.
It’s a lesson I’ll never forget.
We could have stopped afterwards. We could have decided to stay bound to our planet and never look past the sky to the stars again. But we didn’t.
I hope we’ve honored their memories in the best way possible—by continuing their journey, by pursuing what they sought.
We’ve made huge strides, done amazing things since Challenger. We still have a long way to go, even more incredible journeys to take and things to discover and understand. There will always be risks—and there will always be hope. And I have such hope for humanity.