At 11:39 a.m. on Tuesday, January 28, the world changed for millions of children. It was difficult for them--and for us--not to be shaken. In view of the world, seven Americans met sudden death.
At the moment of tragedy, or during newscasts over the next several days, we watched crowds cheer as the shuttle Challenger soared into space. Then we heard only silence as plumes of white smoke shot off in all directions from an orange-pink fireball. Haltingly, the voice of Mission Control spoke: "Obviously...a major malfunction...has occurred." For several moments there was nothing more to be said.
Jubilation turned slowly to horrified shock. The cheers of Concord, New Hampshire students, wearing party hats and waving noisemakers, froze and then melted into tears. Third graders, classmates of the teacher-astronaut's son, who had earlier unfurled a banner proclaiming "Go Christa" from their special grandstand seats at the Florida launch site, began to hug one another for comfort. "Daddy!" screamed one of pilot Michael Smith's children from the crowd, "I want you, Daddy. You always promised nothing would happen."
We knew more about Christa McAuliffe, the first "ordinary citizen" in space, the effervescent schoolteacher on "the ultimate field trip," than the others. Buried among stories about her were pieces of information about them: engineer Gregory Jarvis was an enthusiastic jogger; mission specialist Judith Resnik was a classical pianist; and physicist Ronald McNair, who played the saxophone, took his favorite instrument along on a previous flight into space.
We knew most about Christa McAuliffe because, to children all across the country, this woman who was going to give lessons on weightlessness from space was "my teacher." Her death was experienced by many people under the age of 16 as a very personal loss.