There’s no obvious Northeast Missouri connection to the tragedy that occurred on this day 25 years ago, but anyone who remembers it feels a connection to it. Twenty-five years ago today, the space shuttle Challenger exploded a little more than a minute after its launch.
As Charles Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who at the time worked in information technology at the Johnson Space Center near Houston, tells it, the thrill of the shuttle launch had become routine nearly five years after the space shuttle Columbia launched for the first time. A quarter-century later, it is even more routine — the shuttle launching from Cape Canaveral, Fla., sometimes after multiple abortive attempts, to do this, that or the other, always safely, always returning home with little fanfare.
The shuttle launch is a news item that rarely makes the front page or the lead newscast, always buried on page 4A or airing after the first commercial break. With that 1986 Challenger mission, NASA attempted to drum up a little more positive press by famously adding a regular Joe to the mix — or a regular Jane, as it were — in the person of Christa McAuliffe, a New England schoolteacher and the inaugural participant in NASA’s Teacher in Space program. Otherwise, it appeared another fairly routine mission, another second-billed news item.
And then this happened:
To watch the actual explosion happen, stripped of all its news context, is still jarring today.
There are people in this newsroom who were not alive when Challenger exploded. I am not among them, but not by much. As a child briefly fascinated with space exploration, playing with a toy space shuttle as a little girl and visiting the Kennedy Space Center on my first real vacation, I was aware that something bad had happened to Challenger, but I wasn’t really sure what.
By contrast, I was a college student when the space shuttle Columbia exploded on re-entry in 2003, and I vividly recall watching ABC News out of the corner of my eye, a sick feeling in my stomach, throughout the Saturday morning sorority meeting to which I had been en route when I found out. Yet the words “space shuttle Columbia” don’t automatically connote that disaster, not for me. Challenger is embroidered on the national consciousness as a synonym for tragedy — a tragedy worsened by the painful knowledge that it was preventable.
Twenty-five years and five months after Challenger’s explosion, NASA will send off the space shuttle program’s final mission as Atlantis launches June 28. The International Space Station is nearly complete, the shuttle program on its way to retirement. It is good, then, to reflect on its history — even its darkest moments.