Thirty years ago, my mom wept for a woman she had never met but admired fiercely.
The tears were delayed. Shock came first, that sudden and utter onslaught of disbelief over something horrific that’s occurred that somehow makes the world move in slow motion.
The woman, Christa McAuliffe, was a teacher on a star trek.
She was one of seven aboard a space shuttle dubbed “Challenger” bound for outer space that rose and rose and suddenly became a horrific mosaic of fire and smoke as CNN cameras rolled.
McAuliffe, a high school teacher and mother from New Hampshire along for the ride, was preparing to be the first teacher and civilian in space. Her mission was to communicate with students once she arrived in orbit.
She died in the disaster. So did the crew’s other six astronauts: mission specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Ron McNair and Judy Resnick, payload specialist Greg Jarvis, pilot Mike Smith, and commander Dick Scobee.
There’s an eerie, boogie man silence that follows the initial blast. You can hear muffled moans in the background. (Mission Control? People watching in horror from the surface?) There’s also the consistent hiss of radio static that sounds like a skipping record in a haunted house, but nothing substantial.
I have to imagine people at mission control just stared for a few moments, in complete disbelief at what they had just seen.
My mom heard about it on the radio as she drove 2-year-old me to preschool. We were on our way out of Gleneagle, a suburb just outside of Colorado Springs, when the news broke.
“I couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” my mom says over the phone 30 years later.
She’s on her way to a doctor’s appointment when I call. Not for her; for my new nephew, TJ, a 9+ pound heartbreaker who’s not yet a week old.
She tells me how 30 years ago – then in the presence of another slightly older baby (me) – she stopped the car when she heard the stunning news. Our neighborhood sales office was across the street, so she ran in to see if they had a television. They didn’t.
“I said, ‘Well, you might want to turn on the radio because the Challenger just exploded.’ And the woman said to me, ‘Is anybody hurt?’”
A silly question in hindsight, but I get it in the moment. No one is prepared for tragedy on that scale.
My mom left, took me to preschool, and traveled back home. She watched news of the explosion the rest of the day, cried here and there.
It wasn’t just because of the crash. It was the thing it reminded her of, too. Seven months prior, her brother Larry died in a plane crash while racing gliders over northern California. Still-healing wounds reopened. Tragedy marks its territory well.
“You kept telling me ‘It’s OK’ and ‘Are you OK?’” my mom says.
Again, I was 2. I wonder how effective or therapeutic my words could have been.
There was, of course, the similarity my mom had with one of the crew, with Christa. Until very recently – maybe a year – my mom’s professional life has revolved around education, specifically English and literature. She’s good at it. Her Facebook wall is consistently peppered with comments and messages from past students saying hello. The fact that a teacher – and a mom – had died in this disaster brought it that much closer to home.
For my mom, it also was a reminder of just how vulnerable we are; just how dangerous this business of riding missiles into space can be.
Christa McAuliffe was exceptionally brave to have stepped aboard voluntarily. She had the soul of an explorer, always looking up and out and unafraid.
The era seems different now. Our interaction with the great beyond is much more robot-inclusive. The Mars Rover program. New Horizons. Etc. We’re still exploring, still curious, but we’ve got expensive, meticulously built heaps of wires and servos doing most of the legwork. That’s great. Wonderful in fact.
In the midst of their missions, let’s just not forget who came before them. People like Christa McAuliffe paved the way.