The AOL headline on Friday asked the question, “Do you remember where you were 25 years ago?” and it didn’t take a photo of the Space Shuttle Challenger to jog my memory.
There are some things you don’t forget.
The sky was so blue and the sun so bright that day that I remember being stunned by how cold it was. Not Chicago cold but literally freezing at 32 degrees; cold enough that the orange crops were dying and tourists were scurrying for sweatshirts to layer under their light jackets. I was in heaven at the excuse to wear a sweater for a change.
At 24, I had actually become somewhat jaded at the satellite and shuttle launches, occasionally even forgetting about them in the three years prior, until the early-morning vibration at the Kennedy Space Center not far from my Cape Canaveral apartment would shake me from my bed.
But this one was different.
It was partly the anticipation due to the delays in the week leading up to the launch. But mostly it was Christa McAuliffe.
I knew everything about her, her husband’s and kids’ names, how she was selected from more than 10,000 applicants. I was fascinated, not just by her personality, which was cute and vibrant, but the fact that she was a regular person, a mom, and she was actually going into space.
I had long since given up the desire to be an astronaut, probably around the same time that I first discovered that the Tilt-A-Whirl at Kiddieland made me want to hurl. But space flight became the dream of practically every kid in America whose parents let them stay up late enough to watch Neil Armstrong walk on the moon during the summer of 1969. And if you didn’t want to walk on the moon yourself, you were certainly shaped by it somehow.
Seemingly anything was possible after that, the accomplishment inspiring both optimism and frustration, hence the saying “They can put a man on the moon, but they can’t (fill in the blank)” becoming as cliché as a peace sign.
We were certainly not immune to tragedy in January of 1986. We witnessed assassinations, natural disasters, airplane crashes and the Apollo 1 explosion. Some denounced NASA altogether for being too dangerous or just too expensive.
But it felt like everyone was excited about the idea of a civilian in space.
I had been living in Orlando for six months and was a little disappointed I wasn’t going to get the close-up view I had gotten in Cape Canaveral. But 50 miles away was close enough, friends told me, to see the launch on a clear day like this one.
I had the television on in the other room and the stereo turned up high in my living room, where sliding glass doors led out to my balcony and luckily faced east.
I counted down to myself with the radio, that part just never got old, and squinted to see the plume of smoke. I didn’t have to squint. It was bright white and thick and as it rose, I remember feeling a little jealous of Christa McAuliffe. How lucky she was to be getting this opportunity.
There was no explanation for a few seconds after the white line suddenly exploded and then separated into two white trails.
And then from inside, I heard the words, “There has been a major malfunction.” Anyone who was watching could instinctively tell that, but I was in denial.
I called my friend Ken and yelled at him.
“That is so irresponsible,” I said. “Why is he scaring everyone by saying major malfunction. They don’t know that.”
But I knew. We all knew.
The next thing I remember is driving to work a short time later and the odd sensation that I was the only one on the highway until I realized that everyone had pulled to the side of the road.
The eery, y-shaped plume of smoke was still distinct against the bright blue sky, and we all stood by our cars staring and shivering, the cold day only partly responsible.
For a while, there was a faint hope that the capsule had survived the explosion and fallen into the ocean, but I don’t think anyone really believed that.
I stood there a very long time as the white smoke faded and disappeared.
So yes, I remember where I was 25 years ago.