The Challenger Disaster 25 Years Later

A bit of a change of pace here. Twenty-five years ago today the space shuttle Challenger exploded. I was eleven years old. And while I could tell my story of that, I thought instead I’d have my father tell the story:

The Rings of Saturn

By John Cameron Sr.

It was 11:38 in the morning Eastern Standard Time on January 28, 1986.  At Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off from launch pad 39B, like the fury of a thousand Fourth of Julys.  It was the twenty-fifth shuttle launch and it was Challenger’s tenth.  Seventy-three seconds later at a speed of Mach 1.92 and an altitude of 46,000 feet, the space shuttle Challenger exploded, along with her crew of seven, including the first civilian shuttle passenger, Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher.

On December 5, 1974 at 8:21 A.M. a male child was born to the Cameron clan and his name was given John.  With a shock of reddish-brown hair and big brown eyes, he was the spittin’ image of his father (and his grand-father for that matter). As this precocious young giant grew, so did his fascination with the stars and planets, and he was his father’s constant companion.  When “Star Wars” the movie came out, it was John’s first big-screen adventure. When “Star Wars” the action figures came out his dad almost went broke.  John learned to love books and school and his Teachers.  The world was turning just fine.

My wife and I checked into a nice but affordable motel just outside of Lake Tahoe Nevada. We were comfortable that we had left our son, John, in the good hands of his favorite Aunt, and we were glad to have some time to play. Tomorrow morning was the Challenger launch and John would get up early to see it before he went off to school. I wanted to be sure I was up in time to watch with him, even though he was six hundred miles away. (I allowed myself a brief nostalgia-trip, remembering when he was five and I bought his first telescope. We read books and stared at the stars and found Mars and Jupiter and we saw the rings of Saturn for our first time.)  Now he was eleven and we had watched all the televised shuttle launches together, until now.  I felt somehow disconnected.

On the morning of the 28th I was walking around in my underwear brushing my teeth.  I flipped the T.V. on and was surprised at how close we were to launch. We had all been through this before and were almost nonchalant about firing people into space on top of a rocket. The solid rocket boosters kicked in and the magnificent technological marvel accelerated smoothly away from the shackles of gravity.  Majestic is hardly a good enough word to describe the arc of trajectory, the smoke and the clear crisp air…  It was only 36 degrees.  There were icicles hanging from the scaffolding.  There had never been a launch at such a low temperature. Oh well, they know what there doing…

In an instant everything changed, what I was seeing? This was so wrong!  Then it hit me. What about John? I grabbed the phone and dialed feverishly. I knew my son, and he would be devastated. I should have been there. He was only eleven. I needed to be Dad. One ring, two rings…

“Hi dad, were you watching the launch”? He seemed almost calm.

“Yes son, what a terrible tragedy, all those astronauts gone. I wonder what went wrong?” How could I give him a hug from six hundred miles away?  And then something happened unexpected, something I had not counted on.

“Are you all right?  You sound kind of shook up.”  My son was comforting me!  When did we switch places?

“I’m fine son are you going to handle this O.K.?  Do you want me to come home? ”

“No, I’ve got to get off to school dad, I was just worried about you and Mom…  That sure was a bad explosion.” He was acting as if he had called me.

I managed “I’ll see you when we get home, next Thursday.  I love you.”  I hung up.

I wonder how many lives were changed by the Challenger disaster?  I know my father-son relationship with John started to change that day.  However, the rings of Saturn were not changed.

John has a son of his own now, my grandson Gabriel. Gabe loves the stars.  Events of this world seem to change our perspective, but some things don’t change.  Some things are true.

The light is not affected by the darkness; the darkness is affected by the light, and little boys grow up too soon.