When Challenger Blew Up

This is from chapter 6 in my book Scaffolds:

Thus, I (along with my science class) was comfortable in the library on the late morning of January 28, 1986. I felt optimistic that day. I had my new second draft typed up and ready to show Mrs. Campbell. In a fit of youthful confidence, I even submitted a copy (after spending lots of dimes on the library’s copier) to a publisher I found in The Writer’s Market that I read and took notes when I sat in Century Books but didn’t buy. I had submitted some of my poems and short stories to a local city-wide writing contest. Mr. Dunn designated me first soprano in choir class, and I looked forward to my last choir concerts and competitions in middle school.

Even though I gave up my astronaut dreams, I wore that day my jean jacket that had a stitched-on official STS-6 Challenger mission patch, which I won when I submitted tons of Tang proof-of-purchases. My class and I were watching a live TV feed of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. That was the one with the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe. 1986 truly felt like a brand new year.

Then the horror happened.

As we watched Challenger break up in the sky, many of my classmates didn’t know what they were witnessing. I wasn’t one of them. Thanks to my early obsession with space exploration, I had read about the earlier disasters, especially the Apollo 1 fire and the near-disaster Apollo 13 mission. I had seen video footage of successful shuttle launches, and I instantly knew something had gone catastrophically wrong.

I stood there, stunned. School ended early that day. Eric and Cheryl were still at Dickinson, Mom was at her new job at a Dallas hospital cafeteria, and Pa was on the other side of the world. So Wendy and I crossed the street to an empty house,

I went to my room and stared at the hand-made banner of the solar system and my drawings of the space shuttle. Then I pulled out Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet and skimmed through the pages. Almost near the end of the book, I paused at a passage. I jumped up, rifled through my arts and craft box, and found white cardstock paper, gold and purple paint markers, and a thick calligraphy pen. After an hour of copying from the book and then making margin embellishments in gold and purple, I placed this new poster above my doorway.

I place all Heaven with its power
And the sun with its brightness,
And the snow with its whiteness,
And the fire with all the strength it hath,
And the lightning with its rapid wrath,
And the winds with their swiftness along their path,
And the sea with its deepness,
And the rocks with their steepness,
And the earth with its starkness,
All these I place
By God’s almighty help and grace
Between myself and the powers of darkness! (247-48)

At age thirteen, I wasn’t a particularly devout Catholic Christian. Mom often pulled double-shifts and weekends at her new job, which cut into Sunday school and church attendance. But this was the closest to prayer I offered to the lost Challenger crew that day.

Good God, that was a sad day.

I felt the same way, over fifteen years later, when I saw on live TV two passenger jets hit the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11.



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