I was 14 when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on January 28, 1986. I was glued to the classroom television because, like other school children in the US, I was actively taken along on the journey of teacher Christa McAuliffe, as she prepared for her launch into space. The dawn of civilian travel was upon us, and it was female. I knew women like her mattered to my future, to everyone’s future. She wasn’t, of course, the only crew member. Years later I still feel deep shame that I cannot remember anybody else. I have to Google them so I can memorialize them somehow: Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Renik, and Gregory Jarvis.
I was in my first period class at Sam Brannan Middle School in Sacramento, CA. The TV was brought in to broadcast coverage of the event. The novelty alone of the television rolling into the classroom brought us to rapt attention. I felt the silent but electric pulse when we heard the officiating of NASA’s control center and saw the Challenger on the launch pad. I vividly remember the blue sky, the launch, the officiating of the takeoff, and then my confusion as I watched the shuttle disappear in what looked like a volley of explosions.
Billions of pieces chaotically rearranged the lapis vault above Cape Canaveral, Florida. But my brain couldn’t put together the crew, (who mere hours earlier had been waving on the tarmac) with nothingness. And more importantly to me, Christa McAuliffe, the person I had watched for months get ready for their moment, was not longer alive. In under three minutes, the young cable network CNN, had captured 7 astronauts vividly present in their historical assent, vanish into vapor shards. That invisible line between life and death with a spectacular failure of human hubris. And human grit.
I realize now that my very wondering at what was happening, was itself a sign of death. Had the shuttle launched into space like an arrow into the outer darkness, this would have been “normal”. There would have been no need to attempt to understand it. But now somehow my imagination failed me. I know that might seem strange. It was an explosion; how much imagination does it take to understand that?
NASA’s silent ground control, reporters searching for words, and the faces of the crew’s family members watching the launch, live at Kennedy Center, all are lodged, in no particular order, in my memory. Mostly though it is the sick feeling of realizing what those plumes meant, a feeling that has always been easy for me to recall. From 1986 forward, I gave any Challenger memorials wide birth, and steadfastly avoided any other NASA launches or re-entries.
I still can’t watch footage of the Challenger. Nor could I, after that day, watch any other shuttle launches of re-entries. The instantaneous and unexpected explosion I had witnessed seared me at the molecular level. I was turned inside out by the magnitude of the spectacle. According to NASA’s website there were 135 missions total between 1981 and 2011.
Between January 28, 1986, and January 16, 2003, I steadfastly missed all shuttle footage.
In 2003. I decided to heal myself from the Challenger trauma. I was at a Communication Studies conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico in February of 2003. I was feeling accomplished in both attending the conference and presenting my first academic paper. I would be speaking about former first wave feminist icon Inez Mulholland, a rehabilitation of her memory and place in history. It was the dawn of a new era; a sense of power, purpose, and adventure accompanied me on my flight from Sacramento. I rented a too expensive Ford Mustang convertible, and my presentation was well-rehearsed.
News reports prior to leaving for my trip suggested that the re-entry of the space shuttle Columbia would be clearly visible in the morning hours of the desert skies of New Mexico. The weather was going to be perfect. It seemed the right time to face my fears. I was in a cheap motel, my favorite kind, and in a city I had never been. The weekend brimmed with new beginnings for me as I immersed myself in this graduate school experience. Yes, I was with a man I should have broken up with a year earlier. He was a dangling modifier – awkwardly adding details to my life, but he was always good for an adventure, which is why he was there with me at all.
We enthusiastically set the alarm in order to be up in time for the re-entry the following morning. I went to bed with nervous anticipation, both because of the conference and the Columbia viewing.
The desert morning was chilly and fresh. Wrapping myself in the thin blazer I had brought for the conference, I aimed to hold on to the snugness I had attained in bed. Not just the warmth, but the safety too. I was nervous again. Anxious really. We waited. My core was trembling. Cups of coffee in hand, made in the motel room, we stared up at the wide and empty morning sky.
And then it appeared. The shuttle. But it was not the shuttle. What seared the sky was those streaks. Those damned awful streaks, long and vicious. The plumes of white. So many of them. The same ragged braille left by aluminum and fire. This time I knew how to read the marks in the vast blue sky.
I felt sick. My body trembled. I was undone by the magnitude of nothingness beyond the shuttle, and the finality of the fall as the pieces were sucked back to Earth. Gravity is a relentless master. I felt responsible. I had broken the covenant with myself. With the universe. I shouldn’t have watched. And if my promise to the gods of human adventures hadn’t been enough, my apprehension should have told me. Later I found out the crew had been doomed from takeoff, a tile or something had been broken off and had left the body of the shuttle vulnerable upon re-entry. On my knees, I wept. The concrete was icy cold. Like the Challenger years earlier, the lines in the sky faded. Like the Challenger, it was so goddamn final.
In the years since each of these disasters, when I unexpectedly stumble on pictures of the Challenger or the Columbia I feel an ache, a tightness across my torso, a sudden weight in my stomach. My heart rises up and floats against my rib cage. I avoid the media anniversaries. I don’t need them to be reminded. I cannot forget those shattered vehicles, and how sharp and clear death is, even when it baffles and exceeds the imagination.
The sky is both banal and stunning in its vastness. When I look up with purpose to really notice it, an overwhelming infinity pressing me against the ground even as my center flutters from my vision. In milliseconds my sight projects me miles above solid ground. I don’t need to look at Apollo 17’s famous photo of Earth to know just how alone the universe might feel if we thought about it too much.
How endlessly grand and awful it would be to hurtle towards that cold horizonless pitch above. When I watched the Challenger and the Columbia, I imagined being suspended with them in an aluminum tube, breathing recycled air, vulnerable, and yet chatting brightly as we hummed through an increasingly thin atmosphere at cataclysmic velocity. I also imagined their returns. To safely return to Earth. To find relative stillness and a center again. That sublime embrace of more days to tend. Another day of tasting salty breezes on the Atlantic Coast, smelling roasted coffee wafting from our local café, worrying the knot in our dog’s cotton depths of fur, or feeling the warm and tender skin on our loved one’s inner wrist. This is the final lesson for me. One that I have nurtured with the attention of a monastic. Christa McAuliffe, Francis Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Gregory Jarvis taught me about abiding love as etched into my body. They are the invisible marks of ghosts that still haunt my cells. So, I don’t need to see another anniversary marked by images of an exploding shuttle. My body is my memorial.
Barbara Ann Bush is a community college professor in the Communication Studies department at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, WA. She is originally from California and often travels to Switzerland where much of her family is from. She loves teaching, breathing fresh air, riding her horse on challenging trails, and taking any chance she can to get into bodies of water.