I was just over 5 years old at the time, and so I wasn’t starting kindergarten until the fall of that year. My younger brother and sister and I had been spending our days, probably since the time of my parents’ divorce, at a babysitter’s house, the Adwells. The woman of the house—her name escapes me at the moment—was the type of woman I viewed as being unconscionably mean, as she required us to lay down for afternoon naps when I wanted to keep watching TV. She had remarked one afternoon, as I lay on the floor peaking at the TV screen through one narrowly slit eyelid, that I was either a good napper or a good actor.
I hadn’t yet discovered my fascination for NASA, space travel, and the cosmos in general that would lead me to, when I had learned to write, send letters on an almost weekly basis to various NASA headquarters around the country requesting pictures (they would typically send me a handful of glossy 8×10 PR photos—shuttles, flight crews, etc.), of which I amassed a sizeable collection in the second grade. Because I hadn’t discovered that interest, I was disappointed that they aired a shuttle launch rather than whichever cartoon I had hoped to watch through one slit eyelid that afternoon. And I was even more upset when, after the initial explosion, they began replaying the footage of the explosion, talking about it incessantly. I think my babysitter even changed channels, and there it was on the other stations, too. Okay, okay—it blew up! Can we move on to the cartoons now?
The memories of the time we spent at that particular babysitter’s house are rather fleeting. I didn’t like her cooking, I hated the naps, and I thought she was mean. But that afternoon sticks out clearly in my mind. Later that evening my older brother and sister talked about how the students at Clara Pete Elementary had been gathered in the gymnasium to watch the launch on TV together, and then were talked to by the principal afterward who tried to explain it as best he could. For many in my generation, the Challenger explosion was the first major national catastrophe we experienced. In some sense, it seems like the crises that have followed haven’t been a function of striving to reach great heights so much as they’ve been examples of the depths of what humanity is capable of. I’m hopeful that our nation can strive for better in the years to come.