Everyone was glued to their TVs to see history in the making. A large crew, one of the largest in space shuttle history. Included in it were the first Japanese-American, the first African-American, and two women. Sally Ride was the first woman on a space shuttle, having flown years before, but even more to the point, this flight included the first civilian (who also happened to be a woman). An ebullient, wide-eyed schoolteacher from Concord, New Hampshire, Christa McAuliffe symbolized and galvanized the excitement that Americans had for the space shuttle program. (Remember her picture in Life magazine, where she was frozen in a Toyota-like pose, leaping for joy? She was chosen from among thousands of schoolteachers who applied to fly on the space shuttle. Including my own 5th grade teacher.)
You can say, "what's especially tragic about this is..." and come up with any number of things. But for me, two things stand out. First, since a schoolteacher was on that flight, it was a guarantee that more children would be watching this particular launch than any other in history. And more children would see the most tragic and painful error that NASA had to endure. Those children, so excited about the space shuttle program - and about space exploration itself - would suddenly witness the program's potential for fatal flaws, for the fact that sometimes people die in the service of exploration, of advancement. Children start off thinking that adults are powerful, that they don't make mistakes, and ideally, it's just gradually that they realize that they are just as fallible as anyone. But for that realization to hit with the force of a sledgehammer is excruciating. With that comes some painful growing up. Suddenly, a bit of innocence and idealism is gone forever. And that's why it was such a "where were you when" moment for everyone.
The second thing was something I only read about today. Surely, I figured, no one could have survived such a huge explosion. I mean, thousands of pounds of hydrogen gas suddenly exploded, subjecting the crew on board to a walloping shock wave, insanely searing temperatures, and shrapnel flying at tornado-like velocity. No one could have survived that, right? Well, read this, taken from today's MSN.com slideshow: "Investigators suggested that some of Challenger's crew members may have survived the explosion itself but died in the fall down to earth." Horrific. That may qualify as the worst sentence I read all year.