January 28, 1986. Probably anyone more than five years old on that day remembers when we as a nation lost our innocence about space travel.
I was teaching gifted students, fourth graders, I think, in Americus, Georgia, at that time. We didn’t see the actual explosion; honestly, I had intended to watch it with them, but it slipped my mind and I didn’t turn on the TV.
We had had a busy, amiable morning, and then headed out to the lunchroom. Most of the children were out of the room when the intercom came on and my principal, who handled almost nothing appropriately, announced these words: “You all might like to know the Space Shuttle just blew up. Everybody’s dead.”
The words hit me like a punch in the stomach. I physically doubled over. I ran to the office, as if to see if it were really true. Please let it be a mistake, please let it be a mistake. But it wasn’t a mistake. The worst possible thing had happened.
I went to the lunchroom and joined the other weeping teachers. Then my little class went back to our classroom and sat in a circle and watched the coverage all afternoon.
I had applied for the Teacher in Space program. I was one of tens of thousands of hopeful educators who wanted to be where Christa McAuliffe was on that day. So it felt a little personal to me.
I remember being furious with all the Christians who lived in that part of Florida. How could they not have been gathered to pray for the safety of those astronauts? How could they not do that every time a shuttle went up? It took me years to forgive them.
It scarred not only me, but our whole nation. We lost our innocence about space travel. It really was as dangerous as some had thought it might be.
Later, we learned that the cold weather had frozen a small O-ring, and that had allowed fuel to escape. One of the tiniest parts of that enormous thing brought it down. In business, there’s now a term “the o-ring solution” – that little thing that absolutely must be done correctly or dire things happen.
Not long after, I wrote this poem.
I meant to grade the papers.
I meant to write the plans.
To talk about the commas,
And where the rivers ran.
I meant to teach division,
And the dollar sign, and cent.
And how to read a clock face,
And where the buffaloes went.
But the children – they had questions,
And they needed answers – now.
Like Why is there pollution?
Can the world stop fighting? How?
Why did the Challenger explode?
Does it matter what I do?
Who says that we can’t talk to dogs?
Why can’t kids drive, too?
They had important questions
That they needed to discuss.
They want to know the big things,
Just like the rest of us.