Looking back at the Challenger disaster through Gen-X eyes

Last Updated on April 22, 2023 by Dave Farquhar

It’s January 29, 2021 as I write this. Thirty five years after the Challenger disaster. I was in math class when I found out it happened. That was a little unusual.

The Space Shuttle launches and landings were televised

Space Shuttle Challenger, Gen X perspective
Space Shuttle launches and landings used to be televised. We had posters of them on our walls. It never occurred to us that something might go wrong.

In the early 1980s, the Space Shuttle was a big deal. A really big deal. The launches and the landings were televised. I remember being outside playing and running inside to watch the Space Shuttle land on TV. When the Shuttle launched and when it landed was a major event. When it happened during the school day, we watched it at school. We’d go into the cafeteria and they’d wheel a big CRT TV in. The Shuttle would take off or land and it was a wonder.

I wouldn’t say every kid wanted to be an astronaut, but some of us dreamed of that. And I had a huge 1:48 scale model of the Space Shuttle on its 747 transport. We kept it in the basement because it was too big for my room. But I was so proud of that model. I don’t know anyone else who had that model, but I had other friends who had a Space Shuttle poster on their wall.

I didn’t know anyone who went to Space Camp, but I read about it in magazines. If you smart enough and your parents were rich enough, you’d go to a summer camp where you experienced astronaut training.

From big deal to routine to… this.

And after a few years, it seemed like the novelty wore off. Maybe it was because I changed schools, and the school I attended from 1983 to 1988 didn’t like science. Or maybe everyone stopped watching. But I do think we started to think of it as routine. And, to be fair, the missions became more frequent as we built more shuttles.

The Challenger launch in 1986 was a big deal because Christa McAuliffe was on board, poised to become the first teacher in space. I imagine a lot of schools were watching. Mine wasn’t. We were in math class when the door opened and someone, I don’t remember who, told us the Space Shuttle had crashed.

We were dumbfounded. I was young enough it had never occurred to me that something could go wrong. And none of the previous space disasters, or near-disasters, happened during my lifetime. I understood enough that I knew the Space Shuttle was more complicated than an airplane, but we’d all seen it enough times now that we took it for granted. We just expected it to work, and didn’t really see the need to watch anymore.

And then it didn’t work. Seven astronauts lost their lives, and our space program suffered its first setback in years.

That night, I remember watching coverage on the evening news. They showed the Shuttle breaking up in the atmosphere. They showed the Soviet reaction to seeing it on TV. I remember seeing the horrified look on people’s faces, and asking my parents why they were sad. I think Dad said something like our governments didn’t get along, but their people were people just like us and didn’t hate us. That always stuck with me too.

The flashbulb memory

It was almost three years before a Space Shuttle flew again. And this was one of my first where-was-I-when moments. I was in the living room watching cartoons when John Hinckley shot Ronald Reagan. I was in math class when the Challenger exploded. And I was in my car approaching the intersection of Lindbergh and Watson in Sunset Hills, Missouri when I heard that first plane hit the World Trade Center.

The school building I was in no longer stands. I think it was demolished about 20 years ago. But if it were still there, I could find the classroom, and about where my desk was. I was on the side opposite the windows, about 1/3 from the back.

I remember the Columbia disaster and being sad, of course. But the Challenger is my enduring memory, probably because it shocked me more.

My friend Andy says you can divide Gen Xers into two groups: The ones whose enduring memory of the space program is watching Neil Armstrong on the moon, and the ones whose enduring memory was the Challenger disaster. I’m very much in the later group. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon several years before I was born. But images of the Space Shuttle program, including but not limited to the Challenger disaster, left an indelible mark on my childhood.

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2 thoughts on “Looking back at the Challenger disaster through Gen-X eyes

  • February 1, 2021 at 10:46 am

    I remember I was in Math class at the time. I could remember the seat I was in as well. It was such a big deal, that they sent us all home. I was in fifth grade, and it was a public school.

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