The long morning training finally allowed us out of the conference room for lunch. All of the scientific staff had been sequestered for hours to learn whatever it was that we were supposed to have been learning. As we surfaced, we knew something was wrong. The non-technical staff were all blanched. “Space Shuttle Challenger blew up,” one woman said. Christa McAuliffe is dead.
The date was January 28, 1986. A small television was turned on and the entire lab crowded around it to see the vapor trails rise, then split, then zigzag into destruction…repeated over and over again on a continuous loop. Silence. Other than gasps and groans, not a word was spoken. We were in shock.
All these years later I still remember that day. I was working at the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory at Sandy Hook, a tongue of land spitting out from New Jersey into New York bight. Normally I would be in the Behavior Department building maintaining our 32,000 gallon tank, but that had burned down four months previously (described in My Life in a Brick). A year later John Hersey (author of Hiroshima), would publish a book called Blues based on our laboratory’s work on bluefish behavior. Since the fire my days were spent analyzing data or out on the Delaware II , the lab’s research vessel, studying the fisheries in the bight and environs. But not on this day.
The topic of the training is long gone from memory, probably some bureaucratic mandate. But that day will always stay with me, in part because of Christa McAuliffe. Christa was a teacher. She was the first teacher in space. She was also the first teacher to die in space. She had a slender connection to me. My mother-in-law at the time was also a teacher and had met and conversed with Christa a month or so before the mission. Everyone was excited for this momentous occasion. Never before had a non-astronaut gone on a space mission. I had felt deprived that I would miss the launch because of the training.
But others watched. On that morning virtually every student in the nation had eyes glued to televisions rolled into classrooms and assembly halls to watch the liftoff. A teacher in space! How cool is that? And they watched. They watched all the boring preliminaries. They watched as the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted flawlessly from the launch pad. They watched as a sudden burst of steam just didn’t seem right. And they watched as – 73 seconds into the flight – Challenger broke up and twisted its way into destruction. They watched the faces of the families at Kennedy Space Center slowly realize they had just seen their loved ones die.
Not much was accomplished the rest of the day. Some of us returned to the conference room periodically to watch the replays, much as we would do fifteen years later when the towers fell, the Pentagon not far from my office exploded, and Flight 93 hit the ground nose-first in that Pennsylvania field. As I see photos surface on this anniversary, the shock of that day returns full force.
Smiling faces in the official NASA photograph belie the pain we still feel. We remember the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, and the rest of the crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger, each of whom gave their life for science:
Francis R. Scobee, Commander
Michael J. Smith, Pilot
Ronald McNair, Mission Specialist
Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist
Judith Resnik, Mission Specialist
Gregory Jarvis, Payload Specialist
Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist, Teacher
Between the trauma of the laboratory fire (an arson tragic in so many ways) and the shock of the Challenger, it became clear that my time at Sandy Hook lab would come to an end. A few months later I accepted a job at an aquatic toxicology laboratory. Instead of studying the behavior of live fish I would be sacrificing them to ensure waste streams could be disposed of safely in the nation’s coastal waters and rivers. This tangent would take me into a new phase of my life with its own trials and tribulations, but my time at Sandy Hook – and Christa McAuliffe – would never be forgotten.
David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.