Credit: Image credit: NASA/AP Images


I was in seventh grade when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded over the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 28, 1986. It was in Mr. Kottner’s science class at Irving Junior High in Berwyn, Ill. (just outside Chicago). I remember some friends I had at other schools got out of class to gather and watch the launch together on TV, but for whatever reason we didn’t at my school. It was probably a good thing — even after knowing the tragic outcome of that launch, it was horrifying to watch those people disintegrate into a plume of smoke on television news (over and over) that night.

The principal, Mr. Gardner, came on the intercom, ordinarily used first thing in the morning to broadcast the pledge of allegiance, tell us about the weekend bake sale, or congratulate the school’s spelling bee champion. It was rare and always a little jarring to hear his voice over the speakerbox in the middle of the day. This was back when space shuttles were relatively new and each launch was a big deal, so we all knew it was happening that day. We also knew that this was a special launch because school teacher Christa McAuliffe’s childhood dream of space travel was coming true. Still, despite the principal’s somber tone, none of us were prepared for him to tell us that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven people on board.

Mr. Kottner learned of the disaster at that moment as well, of course. He said a few words to the class that I can’t remember, but I do remember he was visibly shaken. The magnitude of these kinds of events doesn’t always register immediately with a 12-year old kid, whose first response to just about anything is something smart-ass or inappropriate. But the rattled reaction from Mr. Kottner — a teacher, a SCIENCE teacher no less — did affect me. Instead of reacting to his eulogy by shooting a cocky eye roll at the cute girl at the table next to me, I stared straight ahead and thought about how I just wanted to go home and talk to my parents, and how I understood why astronauts are considered heroes.

Your turn: Where were you when you heard about the fate of the Challenger?