Remembering Challenger and my Grandfather


I always get a little sentimental today. On January 28, 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into flight. It carried a crew of seven, including  Christa McAuliffe, who was to be the first teacher in space. 

The Challenger disaster has always been significant for me on a number of levels. It's the first real national tragedy I remember, the first time I can tell you "where I was when..." I, like much of the nation, watched the Challenger launch live on television. I don't know why I wasn't at school that day. Perhaps it was to watch this event. I was a space buff even at a young age and the launch of a space shuttle, especially this mission with the first teacher in space, was a big deal. I remember my mom was home with me, which was unusual, but she was on bed rest pregnant with my younger brother. The launch was spectacular, to a young child it was magical and showed the promise of the future where maybe I too could be an astronaut. And then it went horribly and inexplicably wrong. 

I remember newscaster kept repeating, "Obviously, something has gone very wrong." The television kept repeating clips of the seven crew members walking to the orbiter, waving and smiling. Then cutting to Christa's parents proudly watching in the stands as the shuttle lifted off, then the look of horror on their faces as they realized what happened. I remember my parents let me stay up to watch President Reagan address the nation that night, and I cried.

"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

At the time I didn't understand how the disaster happened  or why. I just accepted it as an accident that we as a nation would learn from and move forward. In 1986 my grandfather was an engineer working in the private sector, but he perviously served as the Deputy Assistant Director for Research for the Department of Defense and still regularly consulted for government projects. Grandpa was called upon by NASA to assist with the Challenger investigation. He served on the Assurance Advisory Board which investigated the causes of the accident and put in place new policies and procedures that ultimately allowed the shuttle program to return to flight.  At the time, I didn't know this as he kept his work private. Nor did I appreciate just how brilliant and unique a man he was. To me, he was just Grandpa who liked to sneak out for ice cream and reminded me "your grandmother doesn't need to know about this." 

My grandfather passed away last June after a long illness. I've since has a chance to know him as an adult and we shared an interest in science and technology. Before he passed, he gave me two items that I will forever treasure. The first, a model of the space shuttle he received as an acknowledgment for his service on the Assurance Advisory Board. The shuttle has a place of honor in my home office today. The second is an original copy of the Congressional Report of the Committee on Science and Technology titled Investigation of the Challenger Accident. 

Today I pause to remember Challenger and  Astronauts  Francis R. Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. But today especially, only seven months after his death, I can't help but also think of Grandpa.