I was in kindergarten when the Challenger……”happened.” Its hard to know what to say to describe it: “malfunctioned” sounds so mechanical and impersonal, “exploded” sounds vulgar……what then? As a 6 year old, I certainly didn’t know or comprehend, and 21 years later I really haven’t come up with a better answer. Sure, there’s *explanations,* the government has proffered the faulty O-ring as culprit. But, the end of the Challenger was a bigger event akin to Kennedy’s death and 9/11. People remember where they were, how they heard, how they felt, what they saw. It was one of those rare and tragic events that every American at that time shared: equal to the pride and hopefully optimism that the space program represented to so many was the sense of loss when such a gruesome, ugly failure was plastered across the sky.
I was in kindergarten in Longwood, Florida, not far at all from the launch site at Cape Canaveral. Later our classes would visit this place on field trips, and aspire to be astronauts and scientists surrounded by the wiry machines, the metallic manifestations of human achievement. Our class would watch every launch, and if you didn’t live in Florida, you might not know how many there were. It was a common event, but of course, all of us were in awe every time. Today, 21 years ago, we were standing out in the sunny Florida winter, heads pointed towards a sky full of puffy clouds. Even at that age, we knew something had gone terribly wrong. A launch, but stalled halfway. A firework, fiery pieces streaming away from the place where they had been part of a whole, a thing with a mission. Smoke set the backdrop, an ominous cloud, a dark nasty spot in the blue and white sky. No longer pointed skyward, but made suddenly heavy like a popped balloon deprived of helium’s buoyancy. We all asked a million questions of our teacher, who’s face was white and taut. The next thing I remember we had all gone home, my parents stony-faced upon picking me up, a blight still upon the sky.