31 Years Ago the World Stopped – Memories of The Challenger

By Mark A. Leon

By Mark A. Leon

31 years ago, the world stopped as nine dreamers vanished in a cloud of smoke into the atmosphere.  An event so emotionally damaging to a classroom of students that watched in exhilaration as their Teacher-in-space Sharon Christa McAuliffe joined payload specialist Gregory Jarvis; and astronauts Judith A. Resnik, mission specialist; Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission commander; Ronald E. McNair, mission specialist; Mike J. Smith, pilot; and Ellison S. Onizuka, mission specialist on a journey to the stars.

It was a dream come true, yet one that would end in tragedy just 73 seconds into the flight.  73 seconds into a magical countdown to space exploration, it was all over.  Students around the United States and the world watched as the shuttle vanished and the commentators spoke with uncertainty as to what had just transpired.  I remember the worlds vividly, “I hope they were able to survive.  I just don’t know.”

I recall leaning against the wall of the hallway, standing on line for lunch when Mr. Adams, our sixth grade science teacher walked slowly in the center of the two lines anguished.  He asked for our attention and explained to us what had just happened.

AP8601281739My older brother, whose passion for news and culture led to a six hour VHS tape of continuous news coverage and replay of the explosion until it was permanently branded into our brains.  It a time when our emotions and actions made us do things that were unexplainable.

As a child, becoming an astronaut was as important a dream as becoming a professional baseball player.  The idea of seeing the Earth as a small round object surrounded by darkness and stars was something we could only imagine in our sci-fi comic books.  To be Buck Rogers and maybe even meet an alien was the furthest spectrum of our over-zealous imaginations.  That all ended in seven adventurers in 73 seconds.

I have thought a lot over the last few years about what events truly magnified my senses and left an impression tattooed in my memory for the rest of my life.  For most, 9/11 is that moment.  An event so heinous; so shocking and so absolute that you became numb inside while being overtaken with silent anger.

The tragic event that occurred on January 28, 1986 was my event.  I had never witnessed or understood an event that froze my senses and awakened a level of understanding prior to this.  Like eating the apple in the Garden of Eden, this was the first moment I began to see a world I had never known; a world where people get hurt and good people die.

That was 30 years ago.  Even today, I can visualize all 73 seconds and beyond when that Y shaped stream of smoke appeared and the shuttle was gone.

memoria2I visited the memorial at Kennedy about 15 years ago.  I had goosebumps as I read the names.  I started to think of the students of Christa McAuliffe, and though they have grown up, my mind gravitated to those students watching as their teacher and mentor vanished into the sky in an instant fiery death.

When President Obama announced just before midnight that Bin Laden was killed in May, 2011, I was in a bar.  The crowd cheered, the bartender bought everyone a round of shots and within 3 minutes, everyone was back to their conversations about school, sports or drinking.  I looked around and thought about the Challenger.  In 1986, it was a time when we let out our emotions and tragedy had a moment to settle in.  Not much time has passed in the perspective of human evolution, but an entire world has changed.

Today, I will place extra special attention on remembering those brave members of NASA and their ultimate sacrifice.

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