Losing More Than Innocence: The Challenger Disaster and Children of the 1980s (January 31, 2011)

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I have written some about the rough upbringing my sister and I endured, which included a lot of ugliness not important to itemize for the purposes of this essay. However, before we moved into our first single family home when I turned seven, the situation was fairly benign, I would go so far as to say happy.

My father had recently finished a four-year stint as an Army M.P. and we moved back to Chicago from the Virginia station we called home in 1982. My baby sister was only two years old, and since we arrived in the Windy City during the summer months, it felt extra wonderful to return to my birthplace. I was able to see grandparents almost anytime I wanted, grandparents usually bearing gifts or trips to favorite restaurants. I was preparing to enter kindergarten, and unlike many other nervous small fries, I was stoked. I already knew how to read and write but I precociously understood that there was a lot more information out there that I wanted to consume. Jen was definitely more concerned with my morning absenteeism from her world.

We went on normally, playing in the backyard of our North Center neighborhood apartment complex, watching The Family Feud and The Bozo Show, recreating Pat Benatar and Michael Jackson dance sequences in our parents’ bedroom in front of a small black and white TV. I will forever be grateful for the seven years of blissful childhood ignorance I was able to enjoy before the bottom fell out.

Although I do not hold the explosion of the Challenger Spaceship on January 28, 1986 personally responsible for my inevitable turn toward weary cynicism, it definitely provided a shove. There I was with the rest of my class, sitting in front of a TV our teacher, Mr. Knuth had rolled into the room. Every other space inside the tiny Lutheran grade school I attended was enjoying the same privilege. It was so exciting to be granted a reprieve from routine to be able to watch the shuttle launch, which included the first teacher/astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. And she was a woman too! What an awesome role model, even as we kids snickered about how much we’d love to launch our own teacher into the stratosphere.

We sat quietly at our desks, enthralled by the pre-launch activities, as well as the opportunity to be treated like real people with an interest in national news events. It felt so empowering. When the shuttle went off, we cheered over the roar of the engines and the fiery plumes left in the moving craft’s wake. Hey, maybe one day we all could be astronauts too!

And then…well we know what happened. 73 seconds after the loud excitement of the nation’s children began, many of us received our first taste of complete shock and grief. I felt something for the first time, a set of emotions that I would come to know intimately: I knew what I saw and what it must mean, but how could it be true? If it was true, how could it be undone? What do you mean we can’t fix it? We have to! Of course upon realizing that the adults around us did not have the answers, were in fact just as bewildered and sad as the rest of us, I felt afraid. This was the first moment, the one I will always remember, when I realized that the world is often so far out of our control. Even the well-meaning, the hard-working, the rule abiders can suddenly and quickly find themselves on the short side of cosmic fortune.

The TVs were rolled out of the room by jittery, bereft teachers just as quickly as they had been rolled in. Our instructors did what they could to return some normalcy to the day but it was far too late. How could we forget that we had witnessed the fiery, sudden death of American citizens? How would that ever be ok?

A seven year-old does not have the wherewithal, the emotional resources for perspective. Whether a situation is pleasing or tragic, it seems as though it will go on that way forever. We’re like a bunch of mini manic depressives at that stage. There was a lot of crying that evening, on my part as well as my mother’s. I asked a lot of questions but wasn’t really satisfied with any of the answers. This was the first time I had any idea that most of life works this way. All I know is I didn’t care for it. I thought about how Christa Macauliffe’s children must have felt that night, how the families, spouses, siblings and friends of her fellow space hopefuls must be racked with grief.

I concluded right then that I never wanted to be an astronaut. Even being a teacher sounded like a raw deal, as to my young mind, you were either the victim of tragedy or one who had to walk students through their own. I also figured that maybe I ought not to be so eager with my information consumption, as the truth often leads to horror.

It angers me as an adult that per Wikipedia, “The Rogers Commission found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident. NASA managers had known that contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but they failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.”

I think what little was left of my seven year-old sanity would have been completely demolished it if had been explained to me that agency greed and ambition was the actual killer of the space team. Now of course I am inured to the damage to human and environmental life that corporate decisions can bring (BP, drug makers, etc.).

The Challenger Explosion was more than a major “Where were you when?” moment in the lives of 80s children. It was the first glimpse of the notion, in a period where President Reagan cheerfully peddled American invincibility and Nancy Reagan told us all to stay away from drugs, that our leaders just might be full of shit.

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