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Published January 26, 2014

Childhood’s End: The Day We Lost Challenger

Twenty-five million parts. Something was bound to break, sometime. It was just another January day. I had the day off from work and had slept in a bit late. It was too cold to do much outside. Maybe there’s something on TV worth watching this morning.

Remote in hand, zipping through the channels, I stopped at CNN. They’re about to launch a space shuttle today. This flight was to be special, I suddenly remembered. For the first time, a school teacher was going into space.

It struck me as odd how none of the major networks even bothered to broadcast manned spaceflight launches anymore. Spaceflight, to them, has become routine, mundane, boring.

From NASA: "Challenger, moving through fog"
From NASA: “Challenger, moving through fog”

As launch time neared, I thought back to when I was in the fifth grade at Abernathy Elementary School in Gastonia, NC. With every launch of a Gemini mission, I came to class equipped with spaceflight books, photos, spacecraft models and a head full of dreams of flying in space.

RELATED: My Heroes Have Always Been Space Cowboys.

My teacher, Mrs. Dickey, would bring a television so we could watch the launch. And I, for a little while, would teach the class. There were advantages to being a full-fledged ‘space nut’.

With every launch, I was there. In my imagination, I was on every manned mission that America had ever launched into space.

Aaron, my three-year old son, is sitting beside me today. He, too, is watching in excited anticipation of the launch. Today, we’re both going to fly to space. Off upon another grand adventure!

  • Main engine start, says the announcer. Three, two, one…lift-off!
    There it goes! squeals Aaron, clapping his hands.
    Roll program.

“It’s turnin’ over!” calls Aaron, his face beaming with excitement.

  • Challenger, go at throttle-up, says the voice from Mission Control.
    Roger. Go at throttle-up, responds the shuttle commander.

The NASA announcer is calling out some numbers about speed and altitude. But his words don’t match the image I see on the screen.

What’s that big cloud? Why are the rockets flying off wildly in different directions? This is not right. Something is very wrong here.

“It blowed up, Daddy,” says Aaron, with eyes that only say “Why?”

I keep watching. They’ll be coming back now. The shuttle will fly out of that cloud, turning, heading back for home.

  • Obviously a major malfunction, says the voice from NASA.

What were the odds of this happening? Something-to-one? And this was the ‘one’.

“This is the day that NASA has been putting off for 25 years” John Glenn, 01/28/1986

I could not take myself away from the television. I remained with eyes fixed to the screen, watching replay after replay of the unbelievable event until long after my loved ones had gone to bed. Sitting alone on the sofa, my thoughts drifted to the family and loved ones of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger

“It blowed up, Daddy.”

I cried.

Back row (L-R): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front row (L-R): Michael J. Smith, Francis "Dick" Scobee, Ronald McNair.
Back row (L-R): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front row (L-R): Michael J. Smith, Francis “Dick” Scobee, Ronald McNair.

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  • Earl Barber

    Earl

  • Earl Barber is a blue collar working stiff who prefers playing his 12-string acoustic guitar for free to most any other endeavor. An occasional essayist, Earl has been posting on random internet sites, most notably the old WRAL-TV GOLO pages, with his essays for over ten years. All my articles.

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