Touching the face of God: Remembering the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

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My love for history was evidenced at an early age.

Growing up in the 1980s, I had a fascination for all things space and thought perhaps one day I would become an astronaut.

NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was a big deal in the ‘80s, and the launches and landings of its Space Shuttles during that decade always attracted national and international attention. 

When I was in third grade living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, NASA had created a special program called the Teacher in Space Project.  

Introduced by President Ronald Reagan, the program existed to “inspire students, honor teachers, and spur interest in mathematics, science, and space exploration.” 

To accomplish this, NASA trained civilian teachers to be Payload Specialists and to travel with the astronauts into space in NASA’s space shuttles.

While orbiting earth, the teachers would perform various science experiments and broadcast those lessons live to classrooms across the United States. 

The first teacher set to go in space was Christa McAuliffe, a high school social studies teacher from New Hampshire. 

All through Fall of 1985, my teacher prepared us for these space lessons, and my classmates and I eagerly anticipated the fast approaching launch date of January 28, 1986.

When that day finally came, I joined my teacher and classmates in our classroom to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. 

I still remember the excitement in the TV announcer’s voice as the shuttle left the launchpad: “Lift off, lift off of the 25th space shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower…”

Less than seventy seconds later the unthinkable happened. The space shuttle exploded -it burst into flames, killing all seven crew members, including Mrs. McAuliffe. 

We cried. But our teacher wept. 

Later that night, on national television, President Reagan remarked: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God’” (from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee).

The next day after school, I asked my mother to take me to the store to purchase a copy of the Albuquerque Tribune. Even as a 9-year-old, I knew some of the historical significance of that moment. 

A moment recorded in a newspaper. A newspaper that I saved (archived) and put in my special blue sticker album – two items that I still have today.

Thirty-six years have passed since that tragedy. Its anniversary comes and goes, and few people think much of it.

But ask someone who was raised in the ’80s where they were when the Challenger blew up, and many will respond similar to me:

I was in school, at my desk, watching in horror and with profound sadness.