On January 28th, 1986 I was 15 years old. I awoke knowing that the Space Shuttle Challenger would be launching around lunch time. It was a school day. At 15 I was enjoying my time in high school. I had every reason to look forward to going to school, seeing my friends. I was one of those kids, who for the most part, liked school. This morning though I wanted very much to stay home. I showered and got dressed and looked my self over in the mirror. I took at deep breath and decided to try something. I walked down stairs to where my mother was pouring herself a cup of coffee. I asked, “Mom, the shuttle is going up later this morning…”. She looked straight into my eyes. I froze. After a second, I continued, “I know they won’t say anything or show it at school…” She interrupted, “I suppose you aren’t feeling well today.” She said it in almost a flat tone and as she spoke the word, “today”, she drew it out, her lips turned to a sly smile. “No, I suppose I don’t”, I said. My smile was far more obvious than hers. I could hardly hold my self back from laughing. The cause of my joy, wasn’t simply because of my mother’s good nature in supporting my interest in all things space. No, she had been doing that since before I was born. I was happy because, I had watched, with great excitement, every shuttle launch until that point. I had cut newspaper articles since before Columbia first flew and put them, carefully more or less, into kind of scrap book. A year before Columbia’s first launch, I had toured Kennedy Space Center and seen the preparations for the launch. I was so hooked on space and had such a supportive family that on that day back in 1986, I was simply over joyed.
Leading up to the launch, I had a frustrating time actually finding any news coverage of the launch itself. I was growing up in a small suburb of Indianapolis, Mooresville. The local ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates weren’t showing or mentioning anything about covering the launch. My mother, always an avid news radio listener, began in parallel to my efforts, of scanning the AM and FM dials for any coverage. We found it shortly before launch, maybe 10 or 12 minutes before.
I won’t describe what happened to the vehicle or crew after launch. What I remember, what is burned into my memory is this; my mother and I were standing in the kitchen together, smiling at one another. We were sharing some rare teenage son and mother quality time. Our little secret (Mooresville High School, I didn’t have the flu that day), that I wasn’t sick. Both of us, fans of our country’s space program. My mother, who had watched every Apollo launch, the one who had sat me upon her lap at watched the last mission to the Moon, the one who had covered one part of our kitchens wall with clippings from each mission.
I remember her face. I remember as how the words changed her giddy smile and joy from the announcers description of a beautiful launch, that turned so quickly to tragedy. I remember she stared straight into my eyes. We never broke our gaze. As the words began to register in her brain and sudden denial washed over her, her eye brows furrowed. She stared at me as confused as my own child would later when Columbia was destroyed. My mother began to shake visibly. She continued to look me in the eye and ask what the words the announcer was speaking, meant. I translated into half technical terms and half gibberish. I was trying to take it all in, to rationalize it. I tried by offering words of comfort to my now sobbing mother. I tried to think of ways the crew could have survived. My mother added into the conversation, remembering how show had seen a video or photo of astronauts and an ejection system in the Shuttle.. I corrected her. Her lip trembled as I had hastily spoken what I knew was fact. I said it in such a matter of fact way, I was oblivious to how it had the affect of a knife to her gut. She reached out and put a hand on our stove to steady herself. I pulled up some chairs and we say there in our kitchen, huddled close, listening to the tinny AM signal coming through a 30 year old radio perched on a small shelf above our range.
In the living room, the reporters were not turning their attention from a launch, to a national tragedy. We both watched and listened for the rest of the day. We talked. We yelled. We yelled at the sky, we yelled out for a reason this had happened, for someone to blame. We prayed together for the crew, for their families, NASA and for the country.
I don’t remember the first launch after Challenger. It seems strange to me now. I don’t remember the launch that came three years later. What I do know is that my mother was watching and I remember her smiling again.