Thirty years ago, running late to a 10:30 a.m. class, I walked past a TV set at College of the Mainland and caught a glimpse of what you see above you. The Challenger shuttle had exploded just 73 seconds after takeoff, killing all seven on board, including Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher in space.
It was a sight unlike any other we would see until the Twin Towers fell 15 years later.
McAuliffe’s presence on the shuttle was expected to bring some much-needed attention to the beleaguered space program, which was facing major budget struggles and dwindling public interest amid criticism of a bureaucratic management. Still, only one network — CNN — planned to carry the launch live.
What NASA hoped would be a public relations coup soon turned into a tragedy few can forget.
Growing up on the Gulf Coast, the space program was a large part of our lives. Fran Waranius, my second mom, was the head librarian at the Lunar and Planetary Science Institute (now Lunar and Planetary Institute), a research arm of NASA.
One summer, when I was 15, she hired me to collate the Apollo mission prints she had salvaged in a dumpster dive at the JSC headquarters. NASA, trying to save space, had trashed all of the almost 100,000 prints.
It was a memorable job, but not — I repeat not — a sexy one. Photo after photo of rocks and craters were broken up only on occasion by iconic images that had landed on the covers of every major magazine and newspapers. Fortunately, Fran let me keep any duplicates I found, and I still have them to this day.
I also have photos of the Class of 1978, a group that featured Sally Ride, the first woman in space, and several of the Challenger astronauts who perished on that day. One was Ronald McNair; his wife, Cheryl, taught school with my mom at Roosevelt-Wilson.
Three days later, President Reagan addressed a crowd of almost 10,000 at Johnson Space Center at a memorial service for the astronauts. The service was held in Houston because five of the seven who were killed lived in the Houston area at the time.
Just days after my 21st birthday, working as a reporter at the Texas City Sun, I received a press pass to cover the event. It was my first chance to see a sitting president in person.
The non-White House press corps had to arrive four hours before the service was set to begin. We were assigned small spots and told not to move. The Secret Service was everywhere. Four hours seemed like an eternity on three hours sleep, especially on a chilly, sunny morning.
Reagan and his wife, Nancy, arrived with at least 90 members of Congress for the service, which was attended by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests. The NASA T-38 jets flew overhead in Missing Man Formation as a band from Lackland Air Force Base played “God Bless America.” The crowd sang loudly as the band performed “America the Beautiful.”
It was as surreal as you can imagine.
Somewhere, I still have the copy of Reagan’s speech and the program from the event, stuffed away with all of my other Fran-related NASA paraphernalia. But one quote from the speech stands out, and as I started writing this late on the anniversary day, I had to dig it out again.
“Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short,” Reagan said. “But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.”
The shuttle program did press on, despite a 32-month hiatus following a sharply critical report by the Rogers Commission that focused on NASA’s flawed organizational culture and poor decision-making practices. The space agency was criticized again in 2003 after the shuttle Columbia disintegrated while re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere, killing all seven crew members, but no other major incidents occurred before the program was retired in 2011.
Befitting a mission that was to put the first teacher in space, the lasting legacy of the Challenger can be found in many of our schools.
Numerous campuses across the U.S. are named after the fallen astronauts. Their families established the Challenger Centers, a network that focuses its efforts on educating students in 40 towns and cities around the world on science, technology and mathematics. Today, the network has reached an estimated 4.4 million school kids.