15th Anniversary of the Challenger Explosion
January 30, 2001 12:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm surprised that none of us thought to post this: January 28 was the 15th anniversary of the Challenger explosion. For most of us Generation Xers, that day was the ultimate "where were you?" event, a moment as defining to our generation as the JFK assassination was to Boomers. Or at least that's what the media wants us to believe. In any case, it affected most people very strongly, and threw a hell of a monkey wrench into the US space program that we're arguably still recovering from. Worse, the shuttle's almost guaranteed to blow up again at some point, due to design problems and the inherent risks of space flight. So where were you on that day? How did it affect you? Do you think the nation was permanently affected?
posted by aaron (65 comments total)
I was in 10th grade at the time. At 11:38 am, the shuttle blew up. At 11:45, I was at my locker after 4th period, when the guy whose locker was next to mine said to his friend, "Hey, did you hear about the shuttle?" "Yeah," his friend replied, "People are just dying to get on! Ha ha ha ha ha!" I hadn't heard about the shuttle until that point, but I got the gist of it from the joke. And ever since then I've been morbidly amused by how quickly people - especially teenagers - create humor from tragedy. Even if the jokes aren't very good at first.
posted by aaron at 12:39 AM on January 30, 2001

It was morning, 8th grade geography class. I just remember another teacher coming in looking completely pale, whispering something to our teacher, and then a tv being whisked in (it was southern california after all) while we watched news stations run replays over and over for an hour or so. I don't remember it feeling all that tragic, because I had to watch it happen over and over and over. Instantly desensitized.

I do remember feeling bad about losing Sally Ride and about the shuttle program. I used to get up early and watch all the launches and for some reason I just knew it would happen, given the immense power and danger of every launch, so I hoped it wouldn't stop space exploration forever.

I also remember tasteless jokes by 2 or 3 that afternoon.
posted by mathowie at 12:55 AM on January 30, 2001

Sidenote: Sally Ride was not on board that flight.
posted by aaron at 1:02 AM on January 30, 2001

One week before the explosion, space shuttle wallpaper was put up on one wall of my bedroom. I lived closed to school so I'd go home for lunch. I must have gotten back home around 11:45 am or so and my dad was watching tv and updated me on what was going on.

Now the real question is...where were you (if anyplace) when Reagan was shot?
posted by gluechunk at 1:08 AM on January 30, 2001

oops. not Sally Ride. There was someone else on that flight that I latched onto though.
posted by mathowie at 1:18 AM on January 30, 2001

i was in the fifth grade when reagan was shot. our teacher explained to us what happened.

10th grade for the shuttle, algebra class. they brought in a t.v. and we didn't switch classes when the bell rang. we just sat there watching the coverage until lunch.

matt, you're thinking of christa mcau?, the first teacher in space. she was on that flight.
posted by centrs at 1:30 AM on January 30, 2001

Was in 11th grade - home ec class. Some moron who sat next to me said "did you hear?" I said "What?" He said "The shuttle exploded." And laughed out loud.

I spent a few minutes trying to figure out what kind of joke he was telling when they switched on the TV bolted to the wall, and we saw the footage over and over again.

I don't remember where I was when Reagan was shot - but I do when John Lennon was killed. Do we have any other defining moments? What about where you were when we declared War and launched the Invasion into Iraq?
posted by kokogiak at 1:37 AM on January 30, 2001

I was watching it with the whole class and I remember silence and I think the teacher even started crying a little.

It affected my class quite a bit. We all wrote about it. I think it was when I wrote my first poem.

We were not immune from the bad jokes either.

N.A.S.A. stands for needs another seven astronauts.

I am reminded also of a quote, as I often am.

"Humor is just another defense against the universe." - Mel Brooks

posted by john at 1:54 AM on January 30, 2001

Matt - was it Christa McAuliffe you were thinking of?

There was a program on the Challenger on British TV last week.

Check this out.

That launch never should have happened.
And in this program it is also alleged that the crew actually survived the explosion - it was the sudden impact of their compartment when it hit the sea, that killed them.

As for me, I was 8, and saw it live on TV all the over here in Ireland. I was absolutely shocked when it happened. I think it was the first time I had ever seen something on TV that was real and fatal.
posted by tomcosgrave at 2:49 AM on January 30, 2001

i was a freshman in high school. for some reason, we all had the day off so I don't have any memories of other people's reactions. I was upstairs at my grandparents' house watching (of all things) the "New" Newlywed Game. They cut into the program with the footage of the shuttle and I just kind of sat there for hours watching it.
posted by spynotebook at 3:23 AM on January 30, 2001

I was but a wee lad in grammar school. Ms. Argenta, our teacher, had promised us we could watch the shuttle takeoff if we were good... and we were. About five minutes before the launch, we were all getting antsy the way kids get antsy before anything happens. Well, de to our anxiousness she didn't turn on the TV till after the launch time.

When the TV did go on, we were treated to an image of Peter Jennings. We didn't know what was happening. Then they showed the replay. It was one of the scariest things I think we'd ever seen.

I don't remember where I was when we went into the Gulf War.
posted by hijinx at 4:35 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in 8th grade, woodshop class when I watched the footage of the explosion. The class was organized so that four kids sat, one to a side, at each table.
As I felt the blood rush from my face while watching it, I could visibly see that happening to the other three that were at my table. A spooky, helpless feeling.
While a lot of kids threw as many jokes around as they could, my friends and I didn't. We didn't think it was something to laugh about.
Besides, it was only the immature 7th-graders that joked about that stuff, right?
posted by lizardboy at 4:37 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in ninth grade in a class called, ironically, 'Challenges' (one of those AP classes where you do cool stuff like read Brave New World). An announcement came over the PA system telling the school what happened. Everyone was quiet, and just then the bell rang for the class change. As everyone got up to leave my teacher called out, "Remember this day, because this is very much like the day JFK was shot." Whenever I think about that day I'm grateful to her for helping put it in perspective for us.

The other comment I remember is one made by one of my lowbrow compatriots who said, "At least that's one less teacher in the world." So much for perspective.
posted by owen at 4:45 AM on January 30, 2001

Vintage Challenger disaster bad taste:

Warning: these jokes have been preserved only for historical and archival purposes. There are no warrantees either express or implied as to the humor worthiness, fitness or suitability at any occasion or for any purpose whatsoever.

Q: What's the most popular drink at NASA ?
A: 7 up with a dash of Teachers

Q: What does NASA stand for?
A: Need Another Seven Astronauts.

posted by lagado at 4:53 AM on January 30, 2001

As a child of the 60s the space program has always been important to me. Even when I was working, as on that day, I made sure I was listening to the launch on the radio. My coworkers in the warehouse put up with it because hey, they didn't want to seem completely stupid, and it was more significant than a standard shuttle launch, since it had a teacher on board. They turned off the AM Sportsline show and turned on a news channel.

Besides, as one coworker said, "It's his birthday, so why not humor the geek?"

Yeah, I remember where I was.

posted by mkhall at 5:13 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in 5th grade when it happened - we were watching a movie about Halley's comet when one of the other teachers interrupted us to tell us that the space shuttle had exploded. At first I was really disappointed because we never got to see the end of the movie we were watching. That night I taped the news footage of the explosion and played it back in slow motion about 20 times.
I don't remember hearing jokes about it for a few days, but they were the same ones lagado mentioned.
Here's another article about the disaster and corporate accountability: "Unfortunately, the Challenger tragedy is not an isolated incident. It reflects a failure in the corporate system as a whole-a system in which management leaves engineers out of the decision making process, and the corporate ethic outweighs both the engineer's professional ethics and public safety concerns."
posted by twitch at 5:26 AM on January 30, 2001

I was four years old. my preschool teacher told us what happened and then we all had freetime for the rest of the day. they wouldn't let us make pretend explosions. it was very confusing.

we didn't have a television in my house at the time, so I didn't see actual footage of the explosion until its five year anniversary, when I was in fourth grade.
posted by rabi at 5:42 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in second grade, being homeschooled. I didn't really watch tv. I didn't know about it until more than a week later, when my dad showed me the cover of Time magazine, with a picture of the big white cloud on it. And then I still didn't understand. I don't know if I've ever seen footage of the explosion. I've always regretted being left out of this defining generational event.

About four years later I heard my first tasteless Challenger joke, told by a substitute teacher:

What color where Christa McAuliffe's eyes?
Blue -- one blew this way and one blew that way.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:52 AM on January 30, 2001

I got my drivers first drivers license that day. I came home from the DMV, and my brother ran out of the house, and told me what had happened. At first, I didn't understand. I asked him if anyone had been hurt. He looked at me incredulously, then pointed up at the clear Florida sky, where the Y shape of the booster contrails was still faintly visible.

Oh. Damn.
posted by Optamystic at 6:01 AM on January 30, 2001

I was a senior in high school. I was sitting waiting for class to start when a few kids came in late and said, very casually, that the shuttle blew up. I was somewhat of a space nerd, so chills immediately ran up my spine. A minute later the principal came on the intercom and announced to the school what had happened.

And I remember the jokes too.

As for the status of the astronauts after the explosion, nobody will ever know. The crew cabin was damaged so bad on impact that it was impossible to tell whether it had remained intact after the explosion. Because of the altitude, if the cabin pressure was lost the astronauts would have lost consciousness shortly after the explosion. The fact is though, that it is possible they could have been conscious until impact. That's a scary thought.

As for the alleged "real black box recordings" published on-line and by The National Enquirer, these are fake. The power units for the black boxes were not inside the crew cabin so the recorders would have lost power as soon as the shuttle broke up.

It's also interesting to note that the Shuttle didn't actually "blow up". The leak from the booster rocket ruptured the external fuel tank. The large "Y" explosion was actually just a vapor cloud.
posted by bondcliff at 6:27 AM on January 30, 2001

Between jobs, I watched it live on CNN. The thing I remember most was the look on the faces of the friends and family in the bleachers. It really wasn't obvious to anyone what had happened at first and I don't think it was to the announcers either. Initially, they said is was a major malfunction. And then the search for the crew compartment began.

Like most people, I just watched it over and over, as debris fell from the sky for what seemed like hours.

That was the last day of the Space Age for many people. Up to that point, I read about and followed the development of the launch vehicle, but after the gasket failure and ensuing investigation a lot of the optimism and respect for American technical leadership the shuttle program engendered had disappeared, never to return.

posted by xiffix at 6:34 AM on January 30, 2001

Ghod, am I *really* this much older than everyone else here? :-)

I was *at work*, delivering (no, morning -- picking up) film, and heard it on the radio. Amusingly enough, I was at a building, and on a street, that have been replaced by a city park.

The CVR theory has been fairly comprehensively Debunked By Snopes.

And I tossed a question into the ether about why nasa.gov didn't say a friggin thing about it... and was told by a presumably reliable source that NASA policy forbids memorials.

posted by baylink at 6:48 AM on January 30, 2001

I was four. I had gotten a toy robot that changed into a shuttle in my cereal that morning. I was playing w/ it, and some guy was visiting my parents and asked me if that was the Challenger. This made my parents uncomfortable, and I felt bad for having the toy.

posted by sonofsamiam at 7:06 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in 8th grade. We were on a ski trip. People started saying 'Did you hear the space shuttle blew up.'. I said 'That's not funny.'. Then it was confirmed. I remember so vividly watching the replay on the big screen tv in the bar area of the lodge.
posted by Sean Meade at 7:19 AM on January 30, 2001

Fifth grade. We were all very excited about watching the launch. Our teacher took us to the bathroom shortly before the launch and all of us were rushing rushing rushing to get back into the classroom in time to watch, which added another level of excitement to it... I remember running back down the hallway to class with my best friend and getting back to my desk just before lift off. At first no one comprehended what had just happened. I don't think our class was ever so silent. I don't remember much else about that school day. But when I got off the schoolbus and went inside, my mother was still on the couch watching the coverage over and over, bawling her eyes out.

Over the next few days I started hearing the jokes. I remember thinking that mostly they were just stupid. And they made me feel oogie because my mom had been so upset about it.
posted by champignon at 7:22 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in fifth grade, but home (alone) sick with the flu. I remember lying on my parents' bed and watching the launch. As soon as it was clear that the "major malfunction" had been the disaster that it was, I called my dad at work. It seemed obvious that this was something so important that he needed to know about it right away--in fact, his office had been watching the launch as well, and he'd just been about to call me. It's amazing to remember how important the space program was to the American imagination and culture at the time. I really miss that.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:26 AM on January 30, 2001

I was in fifth grade in Jamaica, and didn't hear the news until I got home and watched the afternoon news. It affected me deeply. At the time I aspired to be an astronaut, so I was always following the space program. The two year moratorium and the budget cuts that followed showed me that the government didn't get it.

After 110+ missions in space (Mercury, Apollo, Shuttle) to have only lost 10 lives is a pretty good number. "Faster, cheaper, better" has been a spectacular failure. Unless we concentrate on going to Mars with a "bigger, smarter, grander" plan like we did with Moon - the space program will be "nice" and not successful.
posted by owillis at 8:00 AM on January 30, 2001

Ghod, am I *really* this much older than everyone else here?

Thank goodness there's a least a few of us 'old farts' still around!

I was working for a major city magazine then, and someone mentioned what happened. About 15 of us crammed into the Editor in Chief's office to watch the news on his TV. Most of us were in shock....a few of us cried....

posted by Sal Amander at 8:06 AM on January 30, 2001

... am I *really* this much older than everyone else here? :-)

I was beginning to ask myself the same thing. I was in a science class at Richland Junior College in Dallas and found out when someone told the teacher, and he relayed the news with stunned shock. I thought Reagan's "slipped the surly bonds of Earth" speech was remarkable -- there are times when you can appreciate having elected an actor to be president.

posted by rcade at 8:56 AM on January 30, 2001

With all due respect to those who perished, I have to say that I remember thinking, "Why are people comparing this to JFK's assassination? It's not nearly as monumental." It was kind of meta-historically important, I felt: Here was something that we were all supposed to feel deeply affected by, as American citizens, because of the importance of the NASA program to our country's pride in the space race, the noble goal of discovery, the country's modern identity, etc. But I didn't feel that way. The space race was irrelevant. The budgets had begun ballooning. In short, although a very, very sad tragedy, the event revealed itself as an honest effort at public relations (fresh-faced teacher becomes astronaut) that failed in the worst imaginable way. I was most shocked at the nightmare of television footage showing (and thereby diluting and degrading), well, live death of human beings like you and me--but not at any purported historical significance.

Personally, once I had emerged from deep grief at the human tragedy, this was when I began to understand people's common experience via widely disseminated images, and how they desensitize and distance you, especially when manipulated and/or repeated (as many people have observed) by news agencies.

For me, part of the recent evolution in media myth-making could be drawn between the Challenger disaster (a human tragedy but otherwise important mainly as a public image disaster for NASA) and JFK Jr.'s death in a plane crash (a human tragedy and... what? the media's cynical manipulation of an inherited symbol?).

Again, all due respect to those who perished and their families and those who feel strongly about it. This is just how I experienced it.
posted by Joe Hutch at 9:03 AM on January 30, 2001

As a mild pyromaniac I recall an initial feeling of 'wow!' which was quickly replaced by guilt once it struck me that real people had just died.
Even more than the sadness that I felt as a second grade kid, I regret the effect that it had on the American attitude to space. Even more than the Apollo I fire (which occured on Jan 27, 1967; apparently late January is a bad time of the year) it debunked the fairy tale of space.
posted by Octaviuz at 9:20 AM on January 30, 2001

I live near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Flags are at half mast, and there have been memorial services in town over the past few days. This is a tradegy that everyone remembers down here.

I was in history class in 10th grade. I remember going to the lunch room (we had lunch in the middle of class there) and seeing my teacher running down the hall with two TV's in tow. I and a friend decided to go back to class early to see what was up. Our teacher was int he room with other teachers and they were all crying. Christa McAuliffe had visited our school when she was training. It was all very sad.

People down here in Houston did not make too many jokes about the event. Many of the kids in my school had parents who worked for NASA. Some even astronauts. In our school, that event transformed the way we lived for many weeks. It was the saddest memories I have of High School.
posted by DragonBoy at 9:24 AM on January 30, 2001

Baylink, I hear ya on the age bit. I was in law school back then, and stayed home from classes that day sick with a nasty cold. Because of McAuliffe's participation, every network carried the launch live, so I settled in to watch. When the explosion happened, even though the commentators on every network were trying to hold out hope "We don't know if anyone was able to escape, we don't know if there may be survivors." I knew unquestionably that the astronauts had died instantly. (Damn you, Bryant Gumbel, for toying with people's minds.)

I immediately called my mother at work, and she knew that if *I* was calling *her* (long distance during daylight hours, no less) something terrible must have happened. She managed a small office at the time and told her employees, and I could hear all of them cry out in shock and then start to cry at once.

Later that day, my roommates and I were able to turn the tragedy into a lively discussion of US space policy, the pros and cons, the cost factor, and why it was important for us to recover from the incident as quickly as possible and return to regular space flights. I'm glad that is what ultimately happened.
posted by Dreama at 9:29 AM on January 30, 2001

I first heard of the disaster from a friend after finishing a morning class in college. I didn't believe it and thought my friend was kidding. Then I drove home, turned the TV on and saw it.

I was genuinely shocked. This occurred less than two years after the LA Olympic games (with the NASA guy flying solo in the opening ceremony), the middle of the computer revolution, I had just started using the bit net and downloading software from IP/FTP connections, satellite TV was a modern wonder, the space defense program was far-out but made us dream that the only limits were in our imagination. Technology reigned supreme and this was a colossal blow, and that's they way I felt. I'll never forget.
posted by tremendo at 9:38 AM on January 30, 2001

I knew unquestionably that the astronauts had died instantly.

Actually there's considerable evidence that they did survive the initial blast. Read the last part of this chapter from a great article on the disaster.
posted by Sal Amander at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2001

I'm probably the only Gen-Xer here who had to look at the date and figure out where I must have been. If it was 1986, I must have been a senior in high school. I assume I was in a class of some sort and I imagine someone must have told me. I can't say the event made enough of impression on me that I remember any other details about where I was or what I was doing at the time.
posted by kindall at 9:58 AM on January 30, 2001

(Damn you, Bryant Gumbel, for toying with people's minds.)

What would you expect Gumbel or any other talking head to say in the immediate aftermath of the disaster? They didn't know anything at that point, and the time of death of the shuttle astronauts is still a subject of debate today.
posted by rcade at 9:59 AM on January 30, 2001

I was married (at the time) and having an affair. I was stone drunk. Did not learn about it till some 3 days later. Lost my job. Then my wife. Then my girlfriend. So I guess you could say things were never the same for me.
posted by Postroad at 10:08 AM on January 30, 2001

10th Grade. Lunchtime. Sitting at a table with a girl I desperately wanted to lose my virginity to. An administer that we were always in trouble with, yet also oddly friendly with, sat down and told the 2 of us what happened. I never did get to have sex with that girl. Poor thing.
posted by Trampas at 10:27 AM on January 30, 2001

What would you expect Gumbel or any other talking head to say in the immediate aftermath of the disaster?

Things slightly less. . . hope-raising, unrealistic and patently untruthful. It wasn't just Gumbel, I was flipping from station to station and I remember to this day the feeling of creepiness I got listening to them saying that there was a possibility that people could have survived, as if astronauts were going to start swimming up to the beaches at any given moment.

Given the huge fireball and the descent a couple of thousand feet into the ocean, if they survived, they were f-ed anyway, so hearing "We don't know. . . " over and over again just struck me as being off from the very first repetition. There was no way to know anything right away, so they should've just shut up.
posted by Dreama at 10:49 AM on January 30, 2001

Because of McAuliffe's participation, every network carried the launch live, so I settled in to watch.

It was only carried live on CNN.
posted by xiffix at 11:27 AM on January 30, 2001

Eighth grade history class: we just happened to have television in our room, so our whole class was watching it.

I had forgotten that the newscasters held on to the illusion that there was a possibility for survivors; I remembered that the entire class was absolutly silent, save for a few "I hope they're all right.." type comments.

I took down my shuttle posters for months until I could look at them again.
posted by Avogadro at 11:41 AM on January 30, 2001

9th grade. Coming back from lunch, starting my history class at a high school in Washington, D.C. I think it was clear. I'm pretty sure I remember looking out the classroom window and half-heartedly wondering if I could see the cloud from where I was. The thing I do remember clearly is thinking that this would be something I'd look back on years from then: a weird thing, visualizing yourself looking back in advance of present-day events.
posted by allaboutgeorge at 12:00 PM on January 30, 2001

It was only carried live on CNN.

Couldn't have been -- I watched it, and I didn't have cable.
posted by Dreama at 12:09 PM on January 30, 2001

Given the huge fireball and the descent a couple of thousand feet into the ocean, if they survived, they were f-ed anyway

Actually, they soared to a peak altitude of 65,000 feet before falling earthward...but who's counting?
posted by Sal Amander at 12:15 PM on January 30, 2001

I have seen the pictures and replays so many times that all memory of the actual events has long since dissolved - it's not the camera that steals the soul of the thing it observes, after all, but the photograph. I don't think I actually watched the launch live, as my connection to television news was exceedingly tenuous at the time, but I don't really know.

The disaster had no particular effect on my NASA-bound career aspirations. I was more upset by the public (over?)reaction and the complete halt of the space program than by the explosion itself; a few deaths here and there seemed like the inevitable price of any dangerous exploratory project.

In hindsight, seeing the sheer pointlessness of the accident and the incompetence that led to it, I'd be furious at NASA management, but it's hard to find the energy to care about the space program these days.

posted by Mars Saxman at 12:17 PM on January 30, 2001

I was in 5th grade math class in Florence, South Carolina when the principal came over the intercom and announced, "The Space Shuttle has [blorne?] up! The Space Shuttle has [blorne] up." A gasp shook the room and, annoying little know-it-all punk that I was, I declared, "So? The Space Shuttle always goes up." At which point, about half the room screamed at me at once,
"BLOWN up." We were then moved to a sixth grade classroom with a TV set, where we watched CNN for the next hour or so. I remember being both shocked and chagrined.

posted by kevincmurphy at 12:20 PM on January 30, 2001

It was on regular TV. I was home sick from work, and watched it happen.
Sadly, the only person I could think to call at the time was my mother.
I was, and am, nuts for the Space Shuttle (and the mighty Canada arm). I had wonderful luck in catching launches back then, and it was only coincidence that kept me home that day. Don't know if I ever saw another launch after that, as I refuse to pay for cable.
posted by thirteen at 12:23 PM on January 30, 2001

Don't know if I ever saw another launch after that, as I refuse to pay for cable.

But you can watch it online for free! In fact, the next launch is in only 8 days!
posted by Sal Amander at 12:45 PM on January 30, 2001

The whole "first teacher in space" aspect of the Challenger launch made it about ten times more important than previous launches and I distinctly remember David Moran (who always worn his cub scout uniform to school once a week) wanting to eat his brown bag lunch in the classroom so he wouldn't miss the countdown. The rest of us walked back from recess to find David white as a sheet and crying silently.

Then we all watched the explosion repeatedly. The next day the first joke I heard was: What kind of shampoo did Christa McAuliffe use? I don't know, but they found her Head and Shoudlers on the beach.
posted by Awol at 1:33 PM on January 30, 2001

journalism class. Freshman year...since it was a newsworthy even we were watching it on TV. Our teacher called the principal and word spread out from there.
posted by th3ph17 at 1:47 PM on January 30, 2001

Growing up in Florida, about 50 miles from Canaveral, we used to go outside at school to watch all the shuttle launches. It was pretty clear just from looking at the sky that day that there was something horribly wrong, and I remember the teachers looking confused as we all headed back inside to find radios and televisions to tell us what had happened. I remember that there was an hour or so afterwards where there was some hope that the capsule had split off and crashed in such a way that there might be survivors, but after a while it became clear that there wasn't going to be any good news. And I felt a particular sadness about the death of Judy Resnick, one of the first women astronauts, and the one who shared my first name.
posted by judith at 1:59 PM on January 30, 2001

I was at the Post Office during my lunch break, when I heard something indistinct about the Shuttle launch in the background. I thought about it over lunch, but it was only afterwards, on the drive back to the office, that I heard the news.
posted by dragonmage at 2:13 PM on January 30, 2001

I was in high school. I lived in a town close enough to the Cape that you could see the launches just by going outside and facing the right way.

I was at lunch, standing in the courtyard watching the plume rise up into the sky. Then there was that strange moment that everybody describes, where you know something isn't quite right but you can't place what it is -- because you can't imagine that what you're seeing is real.

I went to my next class (Intro to Computer Science, gotta love TRS-80 BASIC) a little bit disoriented. Then there was this exchange:

Boy: (quickly) The shuttle blew up.
Girl: (gasp) What did you say?!?
Boy: (slowly) I said the space shuttle just blew up.
Girl: (relieved) Oh, I thought you told me to shut up.
Girl: (gasp) Oh my God.

I never much cared for Challenger jokes.
posted by jjg at 2:14 PM on January 30, 2001

(Intro to Computer Science, gotta love TRS-80 BASIC)

In 1986?!?
posted by aaron at 2:42 PM on January 30, 2001

Look, it was Florida, okay?
posted by jjg at 3:11 PM on January 30, 2001

I was in fourth grade (what's with all the old people on Metafilter?? :) at the time. It happened during recess, so we didn't see it live, but one of the other fourth grade classes did, and we spent the rest of the day watching the news.

Here's something that I never hear about, that I always bring up, but maybe it's just a false memory: during the post-explosion coverage, NBC replayed an interview with Bryant Gumbel and Christa McAulliffe about the upcoming shuttle launch. He asked her if she was scared, and she replied, "Well, no, not really. It's not like it's going to blow up or anything." They even had captions on the screen, I distinctly remember reading that line.

Is that true, or is my mind totally making it up?
posted by daveadams at 3:12 PM on January 30, 2001

I don't remember it, Dave, but I'd suspect rather McAuliffe said that she'd been told the odds were low and was parroting the gung-ho astronauts she trained with. They've got the stone-cold-guts thing down and talk just like athletes before a big game.

If anyone's still reading -- I was in college, I was driving out in the country to a medical appointment, wishing I could get news of the launch on the radio -- NPR. Then they broke in with the news, and the announcer said "We have an urgent bulletin. The Space Shuttle Challenger has blown up on launch. Repeat, the Space Shuttle Challenger has blown up on launch. Stay tuned for more on this breaking story." My blood chilled, I'm fairly certain I lost track of my lane for a moment, and then I said incredulously to the radio, "That's impossible. Space shuttles don't blow up. In a sense, I was right. Wish I were more right.
posted by dhartung at 4:21 PM on January 30, 2001

I was in Mr. Sebranek's 5th grade class trying to catch the attentions of some boy I had a crush on when they wheeled the tvs in and we watched the replays. I distinctly remember understanding it was a big deal that the Challenger blew up, but not really feeling anything about it. I knew I was supposed to feel bad, but I didn't, and I felt kind of guilty about that. 7 people died, and that was horrible, but for some reason I was pretty desensitized to it. And I never had any strong ties to the space program nor was much interested in it, so I guess that explains a bit. A few years later I remember being really pissed off with the whole American populace because they were so focused on some little girl down in a well (Jessica McClure, and it even bugs me now that we all know that name), and I would take every opportunity to ask people why they were so fixated on this one little girl when thousands of similar children were dying every day in Africa, starving to death, and there certainly wasn't round-the-clock coverage on their plight. And noone remembers their names. Maybe that's why the Challenger thing never really struck a deep emotional chord within me beyond the instantaneous horror of the explosion itself and the lives lost.
posted by evixir at 9:14 PM on January 30, 2001

Oh, and I remember each and every one of those jokes, too... also one involving the usage of 7-up in some tasteless format I can't remember right now. Probably a good thing. They were all pretty cringeworthy.
posted by evixir at 9:15 PM on January 30, 2001

I was in first grade, if I recall correctly. I've always dreamt of being an astronaut, and have always been really really into the space program. The school gathered everybody into the cafeteria to watch, as there was a teacher on this launch. We all watched the familiar sight - the countdown, the main engines start sequence at T-6 seconds, the solid rocket boosters at 0, the lurch, then the swift liftoff. The roll manuever. The shuttle beginning to pitch, following the launch corridor. Then, everything stood still. The giant cloud, followed by two snaking trails as the SRBs tumbled across the sky. The "major malfunction."

I cried that night, though I was understandably less affected by it than older folks. At 10 year anniversary, though, I made up for that. As I recall, at one point on the 10th I found myself in front of the old computer, with Microsoft Space Simulator running. The lights were off, at night, so the only illumination was from the monitor. I sat there staring at the screen, as the virtual space shuttle orbited the Earth, full screen, and slowly passed from day into night. I just sat there, thinking, and tears silently ran down my face.

At this 15th anniversary, I got the PC going again (not having used it for months since I got my Mac), went through a lot of hoops getting that ancient DOS program to run again, and did the same thing.
posted by Spirit_VW at 9:25 PM on January 30, 2001

I was six years old when it happened, but I still remember it well.

I woke up to find my mother in front of the television. She'd been up most of the night breastfeeding. She told me that a space shuttle in the U.S. had exploded.

For years, that image of the shuttle exploding terrified me. I remember going to the planetarium, and shutting my eyes when they showed a clip of the explosion. The music one of the crew members was going to play (the first music to be played in space), haunted me for months afterwards.
posted by underpantsgnomette at 4:26 AM on January 31, 2001

I was in the dentist's chair, getting a cavity filled. Or rather, we were at the drilling stage. One of the receptionists came back and told us. The dentist, the hygienist, and I all kind of went "Wow, dang." and then he resumed drilling...
posted by beth at 1:31 PM on January 31, 2001

It was John Craven's Newsround -- the kids' news programme -- that broke the story in the UK. I knew what had happened as soon as I saw the first frame of video.
posted by holgate at 10:09 PM on February 1, 2001

I was working as a bank teller and one of the customers ("members! they are members, not customers!") told us. No TV available, but stayed glued to CNN once I got home. I'm a hardcore news junkie, so I watched it in a slightly more detached manner than you might expect, evaluating the coverage and flipping from one channel to another during the nightly news broadcasts. Other thoughts re: shuttle:

1. I lived at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was able to witness the first space shuttle landing in April 1981 (1/2 million of my closest friends camped in my backyard!).
2. My father served in the US Air Force, and so do I.
3. I was assigned to Onizuka Air Force Station in Sunnyvale/Mountain View, California; it was named in honor of Lt Col Ellison Onizuka, who was one of the Challenger 7.
4. I appreciate that Star Trek: The Next Generation named one of their shuttlecraft vehicles the Onizuka.
5. There is an elementary school in Palo Alto (East?) named in honor of Ronald McNair, one of the Challenger 7.
posted by davidmsc at 1:25 AM on June 30, 2001

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