Challenger: A Moment in our Personal and Shared Memories

Posted on Thu, January 28, 2021

The morning of January 28, 1986, I was, like many of my generation (GenX), settling into a spot on the carpeted floor of my 4th grade classroom in southeastern Michigan, ready to watch the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on a portable television rolled into the room on a cart. Our teachers, Mrs. Friend, Mrs. Jordan, and Ms. St. John, prepared us for the event for weeks, not because a shuttle launch was an opportunity to teach us about careers in STEM fields or the history of human spaceflight or even the laws of physics, but because one of them was going to experience the wild eight-and-a-half minute ride to orbit and teach lessons to children around the world while experiencing microgravity.

Nothing that day went as planned or hoped.

Launch of the planned Challenger mission, STS-51-LSTS 51-L

Launch of the planned Challenger mission, STS-51-LSTS 51-L, on January 28, 1986. (NASA)

Seventy-three seconds after launch, Challenger was destroyed on live TV. We did not understand what we saw: Our teachers could not explain it, our parents were unlikely to have better answers, and few of us probably spent time paying attention to what transpired afterwards in terms of the official investigation. I still cannot stomach watching the sequence leading up to the vehicle’s break up, views of the crowd, and descent of the wreckage into the Atlantic Ocean. The Challenger disaster symbolizes a moment in our personal and shared memories when we felt great sorrow together, often equated to when our parents were children when President Kennedy was assassinated, and the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was shot and killed on live television just two days later.

And we can find each other years later, at other moments tagged with a sense of anticipation, awaiting the moment to exhale our shared held breath rather than break down in tears. I shared that type of moment with two hundred fellow University of Michigan students in 1998 when John Glenn rode on Discovery back to Earth orbit, the oldest person to fly to space. We stood in the Student Union, gathered around a big screen television, nobody moving, talking, or audibly breathing until the solid rocket boosters separated and the orbiter proceeded on to space. In my professional life, I watched space shuttle launches in the company of the Museum’s visitors in front of large screens, always observing the same frozen group experience until about two minutes after lift-off.

Visitors at the National Air and Space Museum watching live launch

Visitors watching a live space shuttle launch from inside the National Air and Space Museum. (NASM)

Leading up to the 35th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy, the event we commemorate this week, other GenX-ers were reliving their own recollections of that day, when we all became far less innocent and far more aware of how not all dreams end well. Part of my pandemic watching was the four-part Netflix docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight, but I elected to avoid it when it premiered and hold it for a time when I could be alone to digest it in my own way. As the Smithsonian curator responsible for a Space Shuttle (Discovery, housed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at ourSteven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia), it started to weigh on my mind by mid-October that I had yet to watch what I heard was a well done historical and personal look at the events surrounding that fateful January morning. In ways I never expected at the age of nine, my personal memory overlapped with my professional knowledge for a few hours last fall.

Challenger STS 51-L memorial plaque

Space Shuttle Challenger STS 51-L memorial plaque. (NASM, A19870113000)

My colleagues and friends were right in complimenting the series for its quality, but I completed the series appreciating the intense personal and professional connections I have to the event, not wanting to break down in tears over them but unable to disconnect myself from it as well. From the first scene, I was right back in my 4th grade classroom, watching the day unfold again. Within minutes, I was reflecting on the artifact collection I curate, the people I collaborate with at NASA, and the astronauts I have been so privileged to meet. It was a roller coaster. Ultimately, I recommend the docuseries and other recent scholarly works for their explanation of the technical issues, bringing together the sights and sounds of the Rogers Commission, and bringing to life the human cost of failures. My efforts to fill in the gaps of my personal experience of January 28, 1986, and its aftermath up through my present role will be an ongoing project, but one I imagine I share to some degree with many of those who sat on schoolroom floors that morning in eager anticipation of a sublime moment that turned devastating.

Jennifer Levasseur is the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum curator for the Space Shuttle and International Space Station.