Remembering Challenger

I can’t believe it’s been 34 years already.

That morning I was playing in my room with my sister Anna; if I recall properly, Skeletor had teamed up with the Purple Pie Man to vex the joint forces of He-Man and Strawberry Shortcake. The phone rang, and our mother yelled up the stairs to say it was for Tony Ruggerio for me. I picked up the extension and said hello. Without preamble he said, “My God, Joe, can you believe it?”

“Believe what?” I had no idea what he was talking about.

“You’re not watching TV?”

“No, Annie and I are playing. I forgot all about it.”

“Turn on TV right now! It blew up! The shuttle blew up!”

We had all been following the weeks leading up to the launch. Christa McAuliffe was going up in the Challenger to be the first teacher in space. Our entire second grade class thought it was a bum rap that she got to go and our teacher, Mrs. Domenico, did not. But the excitement leading up to the launch was palpable. A regular person was going into space. Anyone could be an astronaut, even a 37-year-old teacher.

And in seconds, that dream died. It’s hard to believe that was so long ago, that the entire space shuttle program is only a memory, that my playmate that day and I are both looking at 37 in the rearview mirror.

The Challenger explosion was the first real tragedy I experienced, and McAuliffe and the rest of the crew were the first real heroes that I had. That day is ingrained in my memory, as is the wonder and excitement about the cosmos that we all felt in the days and weeks leading up to the doomed launch. I no longer dream to be an astronaut like I did when I was seven – I’m too heavy and far too blind – but my love and wonder about the final frontier has never waned, and I hope to live to see the day when a 37-year-old teacher in space is no longer news but instead is a commonplace way of life.

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