Until the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, America had never lost an astronaut during a space flight.
On that day, 30 years ago, we lost seven: Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe, a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, who was selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be America’s first teacher in space.
When the space shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds after liftoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, those seven astronauts were killed in a disaster that seared itself into the national consciousness.
It became a pivotal moment vividly remembered by people years later if ever asked: Where were you when the Challenger exploded?
It was hard to find the appropriate words to eulogize the seven Americans killed in the tragic explosion. Perhaps so, but President Ronald Reagan came as close as anyone to making sense of it all.
In a nationally broadcast speech that evening from the Oval Office, Reagan praised the astronauts’ bravery, consoled their families and expressed confidence in NASA.
Addressing America’s schoolchildren, some of whom watched the liftoff live, Reagan said “painful things” such as the Challenger disaster sometimes happen, but they are “part of the process of exploration and discovery.”
“The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them,” Reagan said.
He closed the speech with words from the poem “High Flight” by John Magee Jr. about how the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” to “touch the face of God.”
We mourned the loss and prayed such a tragedy never would happen again. That was not to be, as 17 years later, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart upon re-entry, killing all aboard.
What good can come from such times of disbelief, shock and sadness?
Believe it or not, according to an Associated Press story, quite a few youngsters were inspired to become teachers. McAuliffe’s motto – “I touch the future. I teach.” – became their motto.
Others, encouraged to “Reach for the stars,” dared to dream big dreams and pursue them.
The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, founded by families of the Challenger astronauts, today reaches more than 40 schools, universities and museums.
As for NASA, its shuttle program ended five years ago, and the focus is on the International Space Station and exploration through unmanned space probes. Meanwhile, commercial rocket companies handle much of the nation’s satellite launches.
The hollow, chilling feeling experienced by those who viewed the tragedy has long been remembered. But we can take solace from the fact that “touching the future” and “reaching for the stars” continue to inspire Americans of all ages.