January 28, 2011 marks the 25th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Challenger or STS 51-L disaster. As TV viewers watched, an explosion blew the space shuttle apart and killed the seven crew members including teacher Christa McAuliffe. On the 25th anniversary, this teacher remembers.
I was in my last year of student teaching at Walden Green Montessori in Spring Lake, Michigan. I was teaching 3rd through 6th grade students. Although television was not used regularly in the classroom in 1986, we had decided to assemble the students to watch the historic Space Shuttle Challenger lift-off as part of our science exploration. At 11:30 we had just decided to keep the students in for lunch recess because the weather was very cold. They were fascinated by the space shuttle lift-off and wanted to watch the event.
The teachers and staff in our school shared memories about the Apollo missions in 1968-1972. I recalled sitting on a dusty floor with my classmates in February 1972, waiting for Apollo 16 to splashdown. Our elementary school had to borrow a tv from central ISD. Although space and astronauts were the rage with children, I remember that we all got very bored waiting for the capsule to re-enter the atmosphere.
We had warned the students that the Space Shuttle Challenger might take some time in lift-off. We warned them that it might seem dull watching the event, but that this was an historic and national event. As teachers, we were especially excited because Christa McAuliffe, one of our own, was on the mission. We had followed her career and mission in the classroom. We had studied other missions and other astronauts, including Dr. Sally Ride and Grand Rapids native Roger B. Chaffee who had perished in an Apollo 1 flight simulation, almost 20 years ago to the date on January 27, 1967.
At 11:39 EST (GMT 4:39 p.m.), we watched as did viewers around the world, as 73 seconds into Space Shuttle Challenger’s flight, it exploded off the coast of central Florida over the Atlantic Ocean. In our little school, and I’m sure around the globe, we all sat in stunned silence, not sure exactly what we were seeing. Watching a space shuttle launch is not a regular experience, so it’s often difficult to understand just what you are seeing. None of the announcers reacted immediately, either. They were likely watching their data panels and listening for confirmation of details from Challenger transmissions. All they knew initially, was that they had lost communication with Challenger. Then Tom Mintier of CNN makes his cryptic comment “obviously a major malfunction.” It was a mass experience of “what just happened?”. I remember that I began to cry I realized that we had just witnessed the death of seven people.
25 years later, we have detailed information about the faulty O-ring that caused the gas leak and explosion. We have document, lesson plans, scientific diagrams, NASA reports (available here). Back then all we could do was comfort our shocked and grieving students and let them process their responses and feelings.