Twenty-nine years ago today I was wrapping up a class at the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Fla. Just before our lunch break, a Chief Petty Officer slipped in the back of the room and quietly said, “the Shuttle just exploded.”
About half of us laughed, because the thought of an space shuttle accident seemed ridiculous. Rocket and shuttle flights seemed routine to kids like us who had grown up after NASA’s early trial-and-error phase. A couple weeks earlier, a group of us traveled to Cape Canaveral to watch a routine Columbia launch in person.
When we turned around, the look on the CPO’s face showed he wasn’t joking. We all piled out of the classroom and looked to the east. A thick contrail rose into the bright blue sky, its ascent interrupted by a twisted, ugly bloom. It hung in the air for an hour and a half before dissipating.
Five hours later, it seemed the whole nation tuned in when President Reagan gave a televised address instead of the State of the Union that was scheduled.
Rewatching Reagan’s speech confirms the public’s blasé attitude toward the shuttle after 24 successful launches:
We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.
Reagan closed with one of his most famous lines: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”
Where were you when it happened?