A Winter of National Muteness: The Challenger Disaster

On a mild, windy unwinter day in North Carolina, January 28, 1986,  twenty-six years ago, my placid housewife/home school world became suddenly unsettled. Our 8 year-old daughter and 7 year-old son had completed a ho-hum morning of math, reading, and whatever-else.

Heading out for a pre-lunch errand to the library, and afterward, muffin-making for 4-H Club meeting, we hadn’t really planned to watch the morning lift-off of the Challenger space flight. The thing had been delayed for days, over and over again; and by now the whole country was wondering, “Will it ever launch?” Yes, we cared. Who wasn’t fascinated by the reality that regular, ordinary elementary school teacher, Christa McCauliff, was on board! She, along with six other astronauts and a satellite payload, made this a truly historic event. Imaginations all over the country had been captured by her amazing good fortune to be chosen. The very thought of a next-door type person being given the privilege of training for many months, of finally escaping earth’s atmosphere, of actually viewing the world as a tremendous 3-dimensional blue ball was, well, it was surreal. Something every school kid and young adult might dream of.

So in brisk late-morning, loaded with books, leisurely heading for town, the radio playing a classical station, a calm announcer’s voice abruptly betrayed the horror of the news. “We interrupt this programming for the following breaking news. The space shuttle Challenger has apparently exploded 73 seconds after lift-off, killing all seven on board. I repeat…..”

Challenger Disaster

Could we have heard right? The ocean already being plowed with dozens of rescue ships trying to find the shuttle and its passengers? Mute, we continued our trek to the library. Parking and asking the kids to wait, I remember needing a moment to be alone, feeling confused and weak. The ancient musty-smelling library room, full of silent, studying, lounging people, aroused an urge to yell, “Don’t you know what has happened? Haven’t you heard?” But of course they hadn’t. And of course I couldn’t. So I returned the books and walked out.

Back home, life went on. We proceeded with our 7 and 8 year-old kind of day. Watching TV was my idea, not theirs; but even though I felt they needed to understand the historic impact of this, they were way too young to grasp the repercussions of disaster. There were muffins to make, after all, and  the drive over to the 4-H meeting. Once there I pondered the somber weight of silence and darkness. We adults made small talk, but no one brought up the news. Not being close friends may have been why. Maybe we all needed to process….

Oddly, over the next few weeks there was an ongoing national reticence surrounding this event. Unlike the assassination of JFK, some 20 years earlier, or the more recent attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, there was silence. Seven bodies lost at sea, seven families devastated in muted shock, sadness hung over the nation. The bereaved families were shielded from all media, and the space program ground to a complete halt. It was as if, once the problem of the 0 rings was identified, it shouldn’t be news anymore. It was one tragedy we didn’t seem to process well. President Bush, the former, spoke of the great need to “press on”– the true “challenge” of The Challenger. However,  it would be a long grief.

We did eventually pick ourselves up. The space program was righted, dusted off, and begun again, all fresh and hopeful. But 26 years ago, our land was truly lost for words.

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