By Mary Alys Cherry
It’s been a long time since we said goodbye to the Space Shuttle Challenger – 30 years on Jan. 28. But we have never forgotten and probably never will.
Even today, many of us still choke up when we talk about it. It was just so unexpected. So horrific. We had been told the shuttle wasn’t the safest transportation on Earth, but after 24 flights without mishap, we had grown confident of the new space vehicle. A school teacher was even flying with the astronauts on Flight 51-L, for gosh sakes!
Yet that Jan. 28 was a powerful reminder to many Bay Area residents – especially the aerospace community – just how lives can be cut short in the blink of an eye. How seven precious lives can be taken from their families.
It was a day like any other. I was sitting in the newsroom at our local newspaper preparing to go to a Bay Area Museum Guild fashion show luncheon in Pearland when another reporter, Jackie Harbour, who was following the Challenger launch on the radio, suddenly said in a loud stressful voice, “Oh, no!” What was wrong, I asked. “They just said there had been a major malfunction,” she said. “That means the shuttle has gone down.” We both got very emotional as it was confirmed: Challenger had blown apart just 73 seconds into the flight and all seven lives were apparently lost.
Wanting to know more, I decided against attending the style show and went home to watch TV. No sooner than I turned it on, I was sorry I had. Over and over the TV stations showed the shuttle exploding into a giant fiery cloud as I thought about their families having to see their loved ones going up in smoke. Many of them were at the Kennedy Space Center and witnessed the tragedy above them in the sky.
Meanwhile, over at the fashion show luncheon, the military came for the six astronaut wives attending and escorted them home after telling them about the disaster. Then, Museum President Sharon Dillard canceled the style show and told the crowd what had happened. In addition to a moment of silence, they all sang God Bless America. Many cried. Others, unable to control their emotions, just got up, left their lunch and rushed home. A sad ending to what was meant to be a happy event.
Later it was determined the flight, which had been canceled earlier, should have been canceled then – that the freezing weather affected the shuttle’s O rings, which failed to close properly, leading to the disaster.
President Ronald Reagan came down for the remembrance on the lawn at Johnson Space Center, where some 5,000 Bay Area residents and the broken-hearted JSC employees gathered to pay their respects, along with Sen. Ted Kennedy, Caroline and John F. Kennedy Jr. and a host of senators and congressmen. All three TV networks broadcast the ceremonies nationwide.
Today, after mourning another terrible shuttle loss when the Columbia broke up Texas in 2003 as it headed for home, we have all tried to move on.
And, we haven’t forgotten President Reagan’s words as he addressed the nation, calling the shuttle missions “all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted – it belongs to the brave…The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.”
This year as we remember their bravery, we hope as they look down on Earth they will know we haven’t forgotten them and how they gave their lives “to pull us into the future.”