The Challenger disaster: Watching it live from Cape Canaveral as a 9-year old

Thirty years ago yesterday, the 27th of January, 1986, I was a 9-year old boy sitting on the shores of the Banana River at Cape Canaveral excited to see my first ever space shuttle launch. During this time of our lives, when shuttle launches were still viewed in every classroom across America, seeing a launch live equated to watching Magic Johnson play basketball in real life or going to a Bon Jovi concert. I remember waking early before school to watch the launches on TV. Every single one of them.

This launch on the 27th, of the space shuttle Challenger, which had already been canceled for a series of days due to various reasons, was extra special, because Christa McAuliffe, from Concord, New Hampshire, next door to my home state of Vermont, was going to be ascending with the other astronauts, the first teacher in space. The beach areas across from the launch pad were crowded with people, cars parked side-by-side and many a lawn chair lined up facing the shuttle poised to leap into space.

My grandparents lived in Florida six months out of the year and this was our first trip down to visit them. It was my first time in an airplane. First time south of Massachusetts. First time to Disney World. First time in 70 F/23 C weather in January. My grandparents lived on a Lutheran denomination mobile home campground that had horses, shuffle board, a swimming pool and was within easy driving distance of Epcot, SeaWorld and baseball spring training (although this was for later visits, as they were not yet playing in January this visit). Their best friends also had a dog named Rags, which was very important to a 9-year old boy (and was the future name of our family dog years later). What better activity to do with two young boys (my brother was about to turn 7) than to go and see a space shuttle launch live?

What I remember the day of the 27th was a lot of waiting. There were problems with getting a latch off a door or something like that. I remember throwing a baseball around with my grandfather to pass the time and eating sandwiches as my family chatted with others on the beach. Ultimately, the launch was canceled that day, because the window for the Challenger to lift off had closed.

We were back early the next day, January 28th, and it was cold. Vermont cold. It was below freezing, rare in Florida in January and many of the conversations revolved around how the state was going to lose its orange crop, because of how cold it was. Again, I remember waiting a lot that morning. But, the time for launch continued to approach and there was a tangible excitement that was starting to build. As the day before, people had their car radios tuned into a station that kept us updated on what was happening. There were a lot of “T-minus” announcements being made.

And then, all of sudden it was time and the countdown began, starting from 10. Everyone on the beach was counting down. You could see the engines ignite about halfway through and then plumes of smoke were coming out of the sides of the launch pad. And then it was “Liftoff!” Cheers went up around the beaches.

My father was watching the entire launch through the lens of an old manual Nikon camera, clicking constantly away every second of the shuttle’s ascent. My grandfather was there with a pair of binoculars, watching every movement of the space shuttle, piping in little commentary here and there.

It was truly awe-inspiring, seeing this human-crafted machine with a bright orange flame coming out its backside, loudly and slowly ascending towards space. Invariably, there were “ohs” and “ahs” coming from the crowd around me, everyone fixated on the rising shuttle.

And then it happened. Famously 73 seconds in.  The large puff of smoke and the various pieces of shuttle going off in a multitude of directions. No one knew what happened. Or maybe they weren’t willing to tell a 9-year old boy. My grandfather seemed very confused and this didn’t happen to this larger-than-life figure, the most knowledgeable and wise man I knew, who had been an airplane mechanic in the Air National Guard for his entire career. This was disorienting. All the viewers on the beach were chattering away in hushed voices trying to figure out what happened after an initial bout of shocked silence. My grandfather remained uncertain.

The drive back to my grandparents’ campground was a long one. We listened to the radio for updates. As soon as we were back, the TV was turned on to watch the news about the disaster. I can remember news broadcasters using models of the shuttle to show what had happened and all the talk of “O-rings.” That is all anyone spoke about for weeks.

My father continued to take photographs all throughout the launch and aftermath. To this day, they are some of the best photos I’ve ever seen of the disaster. I think I brought them in to school for “show and tell” one day. People encouraged him to send them to NASA, but he never did. I can’t remember how many sets of the photos he gave to friends and family, but there were many. I haven’t seen them in more than two decades.

The aftermath is something almost anyone in the US my age or older is familiar with. The space shuttle program was shut down for 2.5 years. The next launches were not shown with the same fanfare, if at all, and definitely not in schools. I’ve heard from some people over the years that that was the moment that marked my generation the most. Looking back, it’s actually hard to say what happened in the late 1980s that would have had more of an impact. This was the 9/11 of the previous generation and was a national trauma for a period of time.

In the first time in US history, the State of the Union address, which was the be aired that night, was canceled as President Reagan instead gave a speech to honor and mourn those aboard the Challenger. I had never seen the broadcast before (or maybe I did when I was 9, but did not remember) and it’s an impressive one. Very Presidential.

Here’s to remembering those on the Challenger 30 years ago today and to the future of space exploration.

Photo: © NASA

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  • Yes. I vividly remember, and at the same time only think I remember this. We always watched the launches in school and reading your blog post, I the wave of anticipation I used to feel washed over me again – along with an anxious tear because I knew what would happen next. I remember our principal coming by the classroom to announce that the Challenger had exploded. I remember Christa McAuliffe had taken her son’s stuffed animal (a frog, if I recall) aboard. I remember drawing a picture about it all. And then…we never wheeled a TV into the classroom to watch a launch again. I wonder how/if that abrupt disappearance affected interest among our generation in dreaming of being an astronaut one day.

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