The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger was a defining moment for my generation. We remember where we were when the shuttle exploded on January 28, 1986, killing all seven crew members. Most of us were watching the launch on live television. I was 9 years old and at home, sick with a January cold, convalescing in my older sister’s bed, which she’d never have allowed had she been home. When something had clearly gone wrong, a “major malfunction” as the announcer had said, I called for my mom.
I remember it felt like a personal loss. Christa McAuliffe, the civilian teacher on board, looked like my mom, who was also in her mid-30s, with the same midlength perm and bangs. We lived in Slidell, Louisiana, home to a NASA computer facility and situated between two major NASA production sites in Mississippi and New Orleans. Many of my friends’ parents worked for NASA. McAuliffe really could have been any of our moms.
But even if you didn’t grow up in a town with close ties to the space program, you were, as a child in the mid-’80s, encouraged to be invested in McAuliffe’s space odyssey. She was going to teach us from space! A woman was ushering in the promised era of civilian space travel. The future was upon us. Instead, the Challenger tragedy resulted in widespread NASA layoffs and a chilling of the space program in general. The promised future didn’t arrive—or rather, it didn’t look anything like they promised.