The Challenger space shuttle exploded on this day 27 years ago. For those too young to remember, people immediately began comparing it to the Kennedy assassination. Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard the news. The feelings were of an ecumenical loss.
The day after however the stories quickly turned to coping. This was pre-9/11, pre-periodic shooting sprees like in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown. There had been a long span between national tragedies when the Challenger suddenly exploded just 73-seconds after takeoff against a cobalt blue Florida sky. As such why it had happened (an O-ring seal in its right solid rocket booster failed at liftoff) wasn’t really the issue. Only that it did happen.
Millions viewed the Challenger launch live because of the presence of crew member Christa McAuliffe, who was the first member of the Teacher in Space Project and the (planned) first female teacher in space. Media coverage of the accident was extensive: one study reported that 85 percent of Americans surveyed had heard the news within an hour of the accident. Accordingly, the media quickly centered on ‘how are the children taking this?’
As sad experience has since shown, this is almost always the way we’ve addressed such monumental loss, even more so today. Yet the sense then, as it remains today, is the more we ask, ‘how do you feel’ to the children, the more we question how it is we feel ourselves.
To those who work among the young every day the message in 1986 was clear: at that age impressions are fast. Kids don’t think more than of the moment. That is their strength. The past and the future don’t count for much in youth. It is we adults with the scope of time who hold the capacity and inclination to dwell and consider. We compared the Challenger to JFK because our lives encompassed both tragedies.
Notwithstanding, they brought in child psychologists and psychiatrists all the same to talk to kids, perhaps searching for signs of understanding that we felt slipping away in ourselves. But kids are not little adults. The French have a phrase for teenagers, “l’age ingrate”, ungrateful age. That is their way.
When my generation was young we sat in early morning classrooms as the audio-visual department wheeled in a TV. Lights were dimmed, shades pulled own, and we’d watch expectantly as first the Mercury, then Apollo space flights blasted off from launch pads in Cape Canaveral. As they did we held our collective breath, beggared by the audacity, but believing that any moment we might bear witness to what did happen to the Challenger a full generation later. But with NASA’s unbroken string of successes, and our eventual moon landing, we began taking the space program for granted and A-V department TVs out of our classrooms.
Today’s generation has grown up with tragedy as far too frequent a visitor, while spaceflight has been re-consigned to the imagination of Hollywood writers. At the same time, death has expanded its presence on TV, computers, and movies alike. In its profusion it is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate the real from the imagined, hence the concern for the children’s well-being.
The message has been lost in the electronic delivery system. Each depraved act followed by station identification and Toyota Savings Days commercials. We’ve been inundated with death to the point where we now desperately want today’s tragedy to have meaning because we can’t help thinking the children may well become inured to its effect. Action in the face of this unending barrage is deafened by the mute button in our psyches, and blinded by the harsh light of LED-generated pixels.
27 years later the tragedy of the Challenger seems almost inconsequential by comparison. Thus our fear then, perhaps well founded, was of a new lost generation. We ask the children, ‘how do you feel’ hoping it is we who still can and they who some day maybe will.