The Challenger Accident
As a child growing up in Orlando, I never owned a jacket. Rarely did it dip below the 70s. So, on the morning of January 28, 1986, I had to wear two sweaters over my school uniform because the temperatures dipped to 18 degrees—one of the coldest mornings of my youth. When I stepped outside to wait on carpool, my brother and I used the cool, crisp air to blow smoke rings—like they did on those Porky Pig cartoons.
An excited buzz hung in the air at school. For the first time ever, teachers wheeled TVs into the classroom. Usually, this only happened on the few occasions we watched movies. But, today we would be witnesses to a monumental event. A teacher was heading into space to teach us daily lessons about the world beyond Earth. We were her students—sitting in classrooms miles below her as she orbited around us traveling thousands of miles an hour.
One of the most magical parts of an Orlando childhood was watching space shuttles launch from the Kennedy Space Center and hearing them return with a sonic boom. When shuttles launched at night, we stepped onto our front yards and watched the sky illuminate like a giant birthday candle. And when shuttles launched during the day, teachers would bring radios out to the playground, listen to the countdown, and, when it liftoff approached, we walked outside to watch the rockets glide into space. On that cold January morning, just before lunch time, we layered our clothing and headed to the field.
Each class lined up along the track that surrounded the soccer field and hopped from foot to foot seeking warmth. Shuttle launches were like homecoming events. Each class took turns shouting out cheers—trying to pass the time while looking east. Our teachers, holding their hand-held radios, listened to the countdown. When it approached 10 seconds, they began counting backwards. Then, the entire school population joined.
At 11:38, we watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger rose above the bank of pine trees. It continued to rise into the cloudless, crystal blue atmosphere. A small triangle climbing, climbing, climbing trailed by a billowing pile of rocket smoke falling, falling, falling behind it. The students jumped and cheered. Our eyes stayed on the rising rocket. We knew the routine: first it rises, then it dispatches the booster rockets, and keeps climbing until we no longer see the small orange flame. It’s only then that we know the shuttle is safely in orbit, halfway towards the moon.
So we watch and watch. And then something unusual happens. Suddenly, the cloudless explodes into a huge puff of smoke. And, from the large puff, cascading tentacles fall down towards the ocean. At first we thought these were the booster rockets falling to Earth. But they weren’t falling. They continued to rise—crossing the midline—and zigzagging their way away from the big cloud. And the little orange triangle disappeared quicker than usual. We stopped cheering when we saw the crying, anguished looks on our teacher’s faces. They hurriedly got us back in line and marched us back to the classrooms.
When we arrived back into our heated rooms, we sat in our desks while our teachers conferring in the breezeway. Something was amiss, but we were uniformed. Then, Ms. Koch, my fifth grade teacher came back in the classroom and made the announcement. Her voice quivered: “Class, the space shuttle exploded. All the astronauts were killed.” Then, through tears, she said, “Let’s pray.”
The class recited the Our Father and the Hail Mary and then we sat in silence. We read books or finished worksheet pages while the teachers huddled outside talking, comforting, and crying together. Three hours later, during dismissal, we went back outside to await our carpools.
When we looked east, the trail of smoke was still present in the sky. The puff was more expansive across the crystal blue horizon, the tentacles longer, and the sadness still lingered. Dismissal, typically noisy, was silent on January 28, 1986. There was a silent hum—like the long last note of a sad tune. At age 11, I saw seven people die before my eyes. And, sadly, a little part of my innocent childhood died alongside them.
About the Author
Brian Kissel is an Associate Professor of education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His focus is writing instruction. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Hattie and three kiddos: Charlie, Ben, and Harriet.