Friday, January 28, 2011

The Challenger Disaster 25 Years On

Those of us of "a certain age" remember vividly where we were the day the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  It was January 28, 1986 -- 25 years ago today -- and by "certain age" I mostly mean the age such that we were in school 25 years ago. 

I myself was a junior in high school, and I was on a break from physics lab when a friend who was given to hyperbole ran up and said the space shuttle had exploded.  No one believed him. By the end of the afternoon, we were all glued to the television watching the coverage, still gripped by disbelief, but knowing it was true.

Every generation, it seems, has a day like this -- a day where everyone remembers exactly where they were when they heard. For generations before ours, it was the Kennedy assassination, and, before that, Pearl Harbor. For the generation after, it was 9-11. In fact, I think it is now 9-11 for pretty much everyone.

Looking back, it seems almost quaint. The entire country came to a grinding halt 25 years ago because of the death of seven astronauts. The President postponed the State of the Union address by a week, and delivered a live address to the country from the oval office instead. It was a really big deal.

Twenty-five years later, it's hard to explain what was so gripping about this event. Yes, it was a tragedy.  That we can tell just by reading about it. But the country didn't stop 17 years later when the Columbia exploded. Most people barely remember it. And compared to 9-11, the Challenger explosion seems incredibly small.

Twenty-five years ago, most of us thought of space travel as relatively safe. If you were in school then, you were too young to remember the Apollo 13 near-disaster or the earlier Apollo 1 launchpad fire. The space shuttle was still relatively new, it was cool and, on this particular mission, it was carrying the first teacher to space. A very large number of school children were watching the launch live on an upstart cable network called CNN when it exploded. The thing I remember most vividly was the palpable sense that things like that were not supposed to happen.

In 2011, we still don't like things like that to happen, but most of us know that they do. In the intervening 25 years, we've had another shuttle explosion, numerous mass shootings, the bombing of a Federal Building that killed 168 people including children, a massive Tsunami in Asia and several big earthquakes. Perhaps most importantly, we've had the 9-11 attacks. There is no way that the death of seven astronauts could seem like the worst thing that could happen when it is dwarfed by the memory of an event that killed more than 400 times as many people.

January 28, 1986 was a day that seriously challenged our collective worldview, which had been carefully rebuilt, one might argue, since the Kennedy assassination or, perhaps, the murders of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. Having your worldview challenged is very painful and very memorable, and so we remember where we were that day. Our worldview as a country isn't so rosy twenty-five years later. One wonders how long it will take, or if it is even possible, to build it back again.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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