The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just 73 seconds into its flight, taking the lives of seven crew members and reminding the world how short life can be.
It’s hard for me to believe that it has been 30 years since the Challenger disaster. I suppose that’s normal when we realize we’ve reached another five-year increment from a notable event.
Challenger was certainly that. Like the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the end of World War II, the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, or Robert Kennedy; and man landing on the moon for the first time, it became one of those events we tend to remember in terms of where we were or what we were doing at the moment we found out.
Assuming, of course, we were alive at the time.
I’ve listened to far more people than I would have cared to hear today point out to me that they weren’t yet born.
It has been 10 years since I told this story, so I suppose it’s not unreasonable to tell it again now. It’s the story of where I was when the news arrived.
I was in tenth grade, finishing up the day’s work in a computer science class I never particularly cared for. We were learning Pascal, a computer language that appeared at about the same time I did, and it never really did anything for me.
Pascal didn’t seem to be that impressed with me, either. I was one of those students who could write a program just like everyone else’s, only to determine theirs would work and mine wouldn’t.
Yeah, I was one of those guys.
The class was mid-morning, right before lunch period, and our teacher, when she felt particularly generous, would allow us to get a head-start on lunch if we had finished all of our work for the day. This day, after battling some computer problems of some kind, we managed to still overcome them and finish.
Someone made an unkind remark about the 1986-model computers in the classroom.
Someone made reference to the well-publicized space shuttle launch that morning.
Someone made a joke about hoping computers like this weren’t running Challenger.
I’m the one who said, jokingly, something along the lines of, “Yeah, or else the thing would probably blow up.”
It was several minutes later when the chilling irony of that little remark hit home, when, lunch in hand, we passed by the library and noticed people were gathered around monitors that had been wheeled into several spots on the library’s main floor.
It was odd. Librarians didn’t like televisions in the middle of the library. They wanted students reading, not watching TV.
We stepped inside, watched what was happening, inquired of a few friends who had arrived before us, and learned the news.
It wasn’t a computer problem that caused the tragedy, of course, but still, what was meant as a joke — a completely innocent joke — I certainly never hoped would possibly come true did so.
I don’t think I’ll ever forget where I was that morning.
Space shuttle launches had become routine enough that they weren’t generally carried live on the major networks. The disaster occurred at approximately 11:39 a.m., and it took a few minutes for the networks to interrupt regular programming to break the news. It must have been just past noon or so by the time we reached the cafeteria and began to get wind of what had happened.
It’s funny how quickly we allow things to become routine, how easily we become bored with things when they always go well.
That’s why, I suppose, it’s such a shock to the system when we receive those reminders that even things that appear the most routine aren’t nearly as “safe” as we assume them to be.
Perhaps, even 30 years later, we can take the reminder of how precious life is, and how, no matter how sure we allow ourselves to become of what our future holds, guarantees just don’t exist.