Space Shuttle Challenger: My First National Disaster

30 years ago today the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded over Florida after taking off from the Kennedy Space Station. I was only in elementary school at the time, but the memories of that beautiful day in Tampa, Florida are seared into my mind. I can recall the run up to the Space Shuttle Flight. In my School we discussed the fact that experiments are done in space and that an elementary school teacher not far from us in Sarasota was chosen to partake in the Space Shuttle flight. It was very exciting. We even bandied about the idea that perhaps on the next trip my teacher, a young woman like Christa McCauliff, could join her for the next trip to space. Needless to say it came as a devastating shock when we discovered from the principal the next school day that the Challenger mission had failed and that the Challenger Shuttle had exploded mid-flight instantly killing everyone on board. I can still remember thinking to myself that I hope some of them survived, but of course this was wishful thinking on my part. After the Principal came to our classroom and told everyone that the Challenger Shuttle had exploded, we were told to go outside and look for any pieces of the shuttle that we could find so that we could give them to NASA. I recall that as we went outside it was a very bright day and although it was around noon there was still a chill in the air from the morning. Once we saw that the shuttle’s cloud trail was clearly visible in the sky my teacher immediately broke down crying. I had never seen anything like that happen with an adult. It was my first national tragedy. It effected her so that she went home for the day under a lot of duress as her husband was a pilot in the military. As we continued to look for the pieces of the shuttle my friend Donny found what he thought was a piece of the shuttle and gave it to the Principal who put in a ziplock bag. I still don’t know whether or not that was in fact a confirmed piece of the Challenger. It was in those heady times that I was inspired to become a rocket scientist. As we remember the brave men and women of that day who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God,” I’ll remember the Shuttle tragedy as my first introduction to the impact that a national tragedy can have on a tight knit, small, local community, like the one I grew up in, in Tampa, Florida.

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