“A major malfunction” turns 21

On January 28, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger was ripped apart 73 seconds after it lifted off. All seven astronauts on board lost their lives, probably when the still-intact and depressurized crew cabin crashed into the Atlantic Ocean moments later. As I have hinted strongly, I was then a student at Concord High School, where one of the crew members, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher.
The destruction of the shuttle and the surrounding events consume a much larger fraction of my memory that I could have anticipated, and I was similarly unaware at the degree of emotion I would find wrapped in both the moments following the explosion and the pertinent islands of experience in the months and years thereafter. If the output includes mawkish essays like yesterday’s — which I wrote almost a year ago; Pink Floyd did not release A Momentary Lapse of Reason until 1987 — I can live with this.

Despite being a sophomore at CHS at the time, if I felt especially tied to the disaster and the drama both attending and preceding it, this was owed less to the whims of geography than to my childhood and adolescent interests. I’d been an astronomy fan since I was about 10, with my interest probably peaking at around age 12 or 13. I was only kid, and maybe the only person, in my circle of acquaintances to whom the sequence of letters O B A F G K M bore meaning. My favorite part of semi-regular trips to the Boston Museum of Science were all about the show in the Hayden Planetarium that most people slept through while I secretly danced and the did the wave. I still consider Cosmos the most incredibly informative and moving program I have ever watched on television (and one of the best books, with certainly the sublimest art of any science publication anywhere); Carl Sagan was my Reggie Jackson, the Voyager I and II missions my ongoing World Series. As a sixth-grader I was one of a five or six students in some extracurricular start-up program for astronomy nerds at Broken Ground School, and this led me to my first with a telescope of any consequence – the observatory at St. Paul’s School in Concord. (SPS is a prestigious prep school withan operating budget roughly equal to that of Mississippi; a few years ago, eyebrows were raised when the annual compensation of its rector was listed at close to $600,000, but its grounds were nice to have around when I was young.)

I had a detailed poster of the vehicle formally known as the Space Transportation System on my bedroom wall that was produced well before the first shuttle was launched or even built (it just kind of “showed up” one day; a theme of my childhood was my parents’ remarkable ability to make perfectly inspiring brain fodder “show up”).

I owned a Lego version of the prototype. I remember watching footage of the Enterprise (a test-only model) carried across the continental U.S. on the back of a 747, and being perversely excited that the much-smaller Space Shuttle would soon be doing things its formidable but staid Boeing cousin never could. This was at about the time Skylab was returning to Earth in hot bits and pieces and killing cows in Australia; I’d read all about the Apollo missions, which became an addition to human history at the same time I did, and was jazzed for (hu)manned space flight to get rolling again.

I never had Christa as a teacher. After being selected by NASA for the program in the summer of 1985, she went on a leave of absence to train. I knew her from assemblies, from talk shows, from the indulgent words of my own teachers. There was a yellowed road-race result with her name on it in my bedroom desk drawer: the Concord Five-Miler, sometime in the early 1980s, before I started running myself. I collected such things, which the Internet has rendered both obsolete and more valuable, with the obsessive fervor of anyone struck by honest passion amid the clamor of adolescence. I ran, I loved it. So did others. So did this astronaut-to-be…

I’ve already painted a picture of what that morning was like at Concord High. By the time the morning of January 28 dawned bright and clear and more than unusually cold in the U.S. Southeast — only now do I recognize how wacky it really is for the temperature to dip below freezing on the Florida coast — the shuttle launch had already been rescheduled twice owing to cold weather. Impatient teens as so many of us were, we’d come to figure we’d be lucky to see the thing go up before our winter break. I remember thinking that if my mother’s Toyota could run in subzero conditions, a multi-gazillion-dollar NASA commodity sure as hell ought to remain viable even if there was a nip in the air.

That morning, there were reporters from the major networks (at the time, there were only three) seeded throughout the school, interviewing kids and taking stock of what it all meant to the self-identity of a community that only a couple months earlier had seen a quiet, nondescript kid named Louis Cartier shot dead by the police outside the administrative offices after arriving that morning with a shotgun, taking a hostage and apparently vowing to put a load of buckshot in a stereotypical tormentor-bully on the football team. So when the day turned into something between a bad action movie and a Picasso painting, journalism at its hungriest was poised to throw down. And we all watched that night: The mass-televised image of a disbelieving and dejected Carina Dolcino standing at the back of a school cafeteria remained iconic two decades later. The unfailingly chirpy senior-class president had, however unwittingly, adorned herself with balloons and party favors in welcoming the blackest moment in Concord High School history, and in its annual coverage of the disaster, the newsies make sure we never forget it.

We were quickly dismissed from school — the principal, Charles Foley, did not announce when school would resume; this would be six days later — with all of us carried off by waiting cars and buses within, I would say, 90 minutes of the time what was left of the Challenger began sinking below the surface of the ocean.

I spent the afternoon as I probably would have given a surprise early furlough: racing my neighborhood buds up and down Mountain Road on skateboards, playing Nerf basketball in someone’s basement. There were no guidelines as to what anyone should think, say or feel, and no one seemed eager to produce any.

So we just lived; and waited. For the smoke, the skies beyond, and our hearts and minds to clear.

It would be some time.