Thirty years ago – on January 28, 1986 – I was listening to the radio broadcast of the Shuttle Challenger preparing for liftoff while on temporary assignment for Kelly Services. I was only one of millions excited for this day as it was the first trip into space by a private citizen, teacher Christa McAuliffe. We had followed her story as she went through training, believing this was a giant step towards putting the average man into space, maybe even towards colonizing another planet.
When I think about that day, I can clearly picture myself standing at the file cabinet and cheering as they said, “We have liftoff!” One minute and thirteen seconds later Challenger exploded, but it was several more seconds before it sunk in with watchers what had happened.
I was so shocked and saddened when I heard the newscaster announce “Challenger has exploded!” that all I could do initially was hold on to the file cabinet drawer and cry. I couldn’t imagine what the families of the seven crew members might be experiencing as they watched, first crying with tears of joy, then tears of agony and loss.
Two days later a huge memorial billboard went up near my apartment and was left up for a month or more. I wanted to cry every time I looked out my living room window and saw it.
The Challenger explosion changed the way NASA operated, but it wasn’t enough. Seventeen years and four days later, Shuttle Columbia broke apart over East Texas and West Louisiana.
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On July 8, 2011, Shuttle Atlantis launched on its 33rd mission as the 135th and last mission of the American Space Shuttle Program. The crew of only four – the smallest shuttle crew since 1983 – landed safely on July 21, 2011.
Shuttle Atlantis is on permanent display at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.