“The Surly Bonds of Earth”: The Challenger Disaster and the End of a Generation’s Dream

Feature / August 31, 2017

The Challenger crew during countdown training at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, January 9, 1986. From left to right: Teacher-in-Space payload specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe, payload specialist Gregory Jarvis, mission specialist Judith A. Resnik, mission commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, mission specialist Ronald E. McNair, pilot Mike J. Smith, and mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka. Photo by NASA

GRASSO: The funny thing is, I don’t remember exactly where I was when the Challenger disaster happened. I don’t think we watched the launch in school or even heard about it there, because the first time I clearly remember seeing the footage was at my friend’s house after school. I do, kind of sadly, remember with crystalline detail that we were about to play with my friend’s brand-new Nintendo Entertainment System, which he’d gotten a month earlier: Christmas 1985. He had all the accessories, too: the light gun for Duck Hunt and yes, even R.O.B. the largely useless robot. So as we turned on the TV to change it to channel 3, we must have seen the news and instead decided to watch the replays of the explosion.

I mention these quotidian details not only to set the scene but to show exactly what my life was like at the age of 10½. Sure, I had loved space and space exploration earlier in my childhood. But by this age, I probably loved entertainment and diversions more. My astronomy and space travel-obsessed early childhood was beginning to melt away. I’d probably taken down my letter from Carl Sagan and the Planetary Society, along with my glossy Voyager snapshot of the rings of Saturn, both of which were on my bedroom door a year or so earlier. By this point, I was diving head-first into consumerism: watching the Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons and envying my friends’ toys and video game systems enough to insist on having them as well. I have a lot to say about the aftermath of the Challenger explosion, but I can’t say I saw it “as it happened,” even if I was the perfect age to have watched it live in school. What about you two?

ROBERTS: I remember exactly where I was. I was standing by the kitchen sink watching the launch on a tiny black-and-white TV (which sat on a TV tray next to the kitchen table), getting ready to head out to school. No one on the network (was it CNN?) knew what was going on when it happened, beyond that there was a malfunction that led to an explosion. There was no immediate sense that the shuttle itself was gone, even though only tendrils of smoke remained—because it couldn’t be gone. This was Reagan’s America, and we didn’t lose a goddamn thing. The announcement that the shuttle had totally vaporized—that everyone on board had died, including the first “Teacher in Space,” Christa McAuliffe—wasn’t made until what seemed like several minutes later. I was horrified, but, as you might imagine, my bigger-than-life 15-year-old concerns soon reasserted themselves. I have to tell you, I just watched the footage for the first time since that day, and I’m an absolute mess. This is going to be hard for me.

MCKENNA: In 1986, my instinct upon arriving home after school was to immediately turn on the telly in the front room and watch as much of whatever was on—at that time generally rubbish for kids—as I could before my parents got home from work. At the time, the UK had four TV channels and news was available only in brief windows throughout the day, so, like many other British kids, I learned about the Challenger explosion from a 10-minute BBC daily children’s news program shown at 5:00 British time called Newsround, which was the first program in the UK to broadcast the event. I was worryingly apathetic and blank and unempathetic back then, so I can’t claim to remember having any reaction to it at all apart from watching it in silence. The US had always felt very far away, but the news dwelled on the astronauts’ families who had watched the disaster happening, revealing a type of American we didn’t usually see on TV: normal-looking people wearing cagoules and glasses who resembled the folk who worked at the market or the library near us. The US—which previously seemed to exist on some higher, glossier plain of existence—seemed very like the provincial world I inhabited.

I watched the footage again later that evening on the Nine O’Clock News on a small portable black-and-white TV—all I could concentrate on was the SRB which had broken loose and was running wild through the sky like a crazed pencil attempting to write some message.

GRASSO: I wanted to talk about the impact and aftermath of the event on me and my classmates. That night, like most Americans, I watched the President’s speech, which pre-empted the scheduled State of the Union address. I should take a moment here to state something. I’m not sure if I can adequately relate to people either older or younger than me how large Ronald Reagan loomed in our late-Generation X childhoods. He seemed to be everywhere, both him and his wife. Again, being a child who grew up in front of television, I was particularly vulnerable to Reagan’s admittedly brilliant use of the medium. His affect in moments like the Challenger disaster was, I believe in retrospect, consciously evocative of gentle, reassuring TV personalities like Fred Rogers. Reagan’s voice and body language could be startlingly warm for a man whose Darwinian ideology and policies were at this time devastating the American people and, ultimately, the American spirit. I suppose that is part of why he is still idolized by conservatives today; he put a pleasant, firm, grandfatherly face on his and their determined destruction of the American polity.

Peggy Noonan’s speech even included a specific message to America’s schoolchildren: “I know it is hard to understand, but sometimes painful things like this happen. It’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery.” The intention and delivery was well-chosen, but what a heavy fucking burden to put on kids in the year 1986, to ask them to implicitly support the potentially deadly mission to explore space.

That being said, I think for me it was Christa McAuliffe’s death that was the most difficult to process. As Kelly mentioned above, this Shuttle trip was meant to give a civilian schoolteacher a window on space travel. McAuliffe hailed from neighboring New Hampshire, and her story was constantly on the local Boston news in the weeks and months leading up to the launch. I would have been in 5th grade at the time, and the classroom was the one place in my daily life where I could feel successful and fulfilled. I was a dutiful and obedient student all throughout grade school. I not only respected my teachers but idolized them. It made sense to me in some way that a teacher would be chosen to become an astronaut. In my 10½-year-old mind, both professions were heroes. Christa McAuliffe’s death was weirdly personal for me.

Of course, at this age there’s a competition among boys to be edgy and gross, and in the weeks after the accident, the inevitable jokes about the tragedy made their way around the cafeteria. I’m sure these kids heard these jokes from dads and older brothers (“Where did Christa McAuliffe take a vacation? All over Florida!”) but for me they were brutally traumatizing. The fact that I can remember where and how I heard them, more than 30 years later, tells you a lot. It’s shocking how quickly a national tragedy can become a tasteless joke. I suppose I shouldn’t be too harsh on these kids; not only were they just kids, but who knows if and how these jokes helped them through the trauma. But for me, it was a particularly damaging aftermath to an event that was already incredibly difficult for my young mind to admit.

ROBERTS: As Mike mentioned, Christa McAuliffe was a celebrity among US teachers and schoolchildren. The Teacher in Space Project (TISP) was a big deal, and we talked about it in class all throughout 1985 (I was in 8th grade). Remember, teachers at this point were held in very high regard, not routinely blamed and often demonized for social ills they didn’t create. McAuliffe was even going to teach classes from orbit, with millions of kids at home tuning in. Who knows what would have happened to the program, and to our commitment to space—hell, our commitment to education itself—had the Challenger made it home? In retrospect, as many have argued, the Space Shuttle program did not do what it was supposed to do: provide “reliable access to space” so that the U.S. could build a “permanently manned space station,” which Reagan announced in his 1984 State of the Union. For Reagan, every shuttle launch was a demonstration of post-Vietnam American prestige and will, as was the idea of the space station. The final frontier to him was, like everything else, a commercial arena—as well as a military one, as his foolhardy 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” for its grounding in sheer fantasy, made obvious.

MCKENNA: I don’t know if the whole UK watched it play out with the same numb detachment I did, or whether that was just me, stunned into dazed passivity by my inability to cope with being a teenager. There were the sick jokes which Mike mentions for a day or so at school, and then the whole thing started to fade. Since the beginning, the saga of the shuttle had always seemed as distant as it had impossibly glamorous in Britain, and the country was also perhaps still traumatised after the miners’ strike, rioting and string of high-profile catastrophes of recent years. And then, the shuttle program had never really inspired much excitement in me—it looked too much like a plane, and the whole thing felt like a dilution of the euphoric space dreams of my childhood.

It wasn’t until about probably a year later—when I discovered that a song I liked came from a record called Teachers in Space— that the reality of it suddenly hit me. We knew there’d been a teacher aboard the Challenger, but I’m not sure we were aware of the TIS program in the UK, and so I didn’t make the connection with the disaster until somebody showed me a picture of the LP cover in Maximumrocknroll. I remember a wave of (entirely hypocritical) conditioned puritan outrage washing over me, before the other person pointed out that commenting on something, even satirically, didn’t necessarily imply not taking it seriously. They were right, of course, but for some reason it was that picture which brought home how sad the whole thing was.

GRASSO: I mentioned earlier how my early childhood obsession with space had largely faded by this point. I’ve been noticing this week talking to the two of you that even just a few short years difference in age means a profound difference in how we all dreamed of space as kids. I wasn’t alive for any of the moon landings; my obsessions as a kid were the unmanned probes like Viking and Voyager that were featured in Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, as opposed to the High Space Age missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. At the age where I should have been a NASA fanboy, our collective dreams of space flight were already severely curtailed. The Space Shuttle program, which had been on the drawing board since the earliest years of the space race era, was my generational cohort’s only outlet for these dreams.

And these were ultimately very modest dreams! The Shuttle’s mission profile shrank from the initial plans of being used for reusable airplane-style trips to Earth orbit or even the Moon to merely short duration stays in orbit. While the Shuttle program did perform scientific missions and help construct the International Space Station (plans for which were threatened by Challenger‘s counterpart disaster, the Columbia re-entry disaster in 2003), the Shuttle was also an instrument of the American military and intelligence communities. Various shuttles performed ten classified missions for the National Reconnaissance Office and Department of Defense throughout the program’s history. Combine this with the nationalistic propaganda and morale value of the Shuttle that Kelly cites above, and President Reagan’s rhetoric about the Shuttle being a part of the “process of exploration and discovery” rings quite hollow. What did the Challenger Seven and Columbia Seven die for? The better angels of our nature, or for temporary advantage in a Cold War that was about to end anyway?

17 thoughts on ““The Surly Bonds of Earth”: The Challenger Disaster and the End of a Generation’s Dream

  1. It is so interesting to read the differences in your memories! Being much older then you, I really identify with the title here.

    • It’s funny you posted that video Jeff because my only memory of the Challenger explosion was this episode of Punky Brewster. I was only 2 or 3 years old when it happened so obviously I have no memory of it, and then I saw this episode in reruns when was I probably 10 or 11. I remember thinking her reaction seemed odd to me — but I guess by the time the millennials were adolescents and teenagers, the concept of space as a “frontier” was long dead, so the tragedy of the Challenger didn’t register as strongly.

    • My God, I had no idea! I would have been off Punky Brewster at this age, but still, you’d think I would have crossed paths with the episode at some point… Thanks for posting.

  2. I remember the Challenger disaster, although I dont think it hit me personally despite reading all the news about it & the following inquiry at the time. I do remember someone I knew noting how detached & professional the Nasa live voice accompanying the footgage was, and how it was the direct opposite of the famous news call of the Hindenberg Disaster. By the time the Columbia accident happened though, we knew the manned spaceship business was all over for the reasonably forseeable future.

    Here are some links worth reading, especially the first two. Gary copped a lot of heat for the 2003 one. He straight up blamed the unrealistic fantasies of sci-fi for encouraging the continued support of a dangerous vehicle and an unnecessary manned space effort in general.

    Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction
    by Gary Westfahl

    Tunnel Vision and the Unfarmed Sky: Columbia, and the Dreams of Science Fiction, Five Years Later
    by Gary Westfahl

    Face it, America: The Space Shuttle was a total failure
    Manu Saadia

    Gary sort of wrote again about the topic, in a review of JG Ballard.

    The Man Who Didn’t Need to Walk on the Moon
    J. G. Ballard and “The Vanished Age of Space”

    The pics below could have been from a Ballard story.

    The Lonely Launchpads and Rusted Rockets of America’s Abandoned Space Facilities

  3. I still remember that morning like it was yesterday.

    I was in 1st period of 10th Grade (15 yrs. old at the time). I had JV Volleyball for 1st period, and was in the boys’ locker room getting suited up for our drills as usual. I remember pulling my old beat-up Nikes out of the locker (I couldn’t afford the ASICS Tiger volleyball shoes at the time) and getting ready to put them on, when our coach walked by with a grim look on his face.

    Our coach was a really serious, pretty deadpan type of dood to begin with, but his expression that morning was especially grave. He paused in my locker aisle and said coldly, “I just watched the news. The Space Shuttle exploded.” In the couple of seconds that it took for that blunt delivery to make an impact, my coach had moved on, clutching his clipboard, his chrome whistle dangling from his neck.

    News travelled much, much slower back then; this was eons before the ability to just reach into our pocket and Google something within seconds to know what was happening. So for the first few hours of school, there was a weird lull in the atmosphere, with only the teachers being able to discuss it further than any of us students could. And even amongst the student body, it was only the geeks and nerds that showed any real concern for “spaceships” and other far-out technology that wasn’t really mainstream food for thought for most teens at the time.

    It wasn’t until one of my later classes when the teacher was able to request the good ol’ TV cart from the AV Dept. and we were able to tune into the tragic news. It was then that we all fell silent.

    I’ll never forget that ominous Y-shaped cloud which signified the end of the Challenger crew, and that zoomed-in shot on the stray, lonely SRB which, still powered on its remaining fuel, indeed looked like a lost pencil desperately trying to write the rest of its story somewhere in the sky. Those images will be forever embedded in my memory banks. And that pause…that breathtaking, wtf-just-happened shock that left the NASA control man speechless in the play-by-play narration of the mission when the shuttle exploded…leaves me equally speechless to this day.

    That day, I realized how fragile our lives were, and how anyone could be vaporized in an instant. It didn’t matter how accomplished one was, how much praise and accolades the media gave them, how many cheers and applause one received for their effort…how much they were loved…each and every one of us could go at any time. It was a sobering thought.

    Yet—and I’m still astounded as to how this happened—on the opposite side of the cynical spectrum, seemingly by the end of the same fateful day, there were already tasteless jokes being spread across campus. How did that happen?

    The Space Shuttle disaster was the first time I really tracked the news over several days and really tried to understand what occurred. I was glued to the TV in both fascination and sadness. I saw the footage of McAuliffe’s class watching the shuttle shoot skywards and heard their cheers when it exploded, as they thought it was a spectacular part of the launch process. I saw their smiles gradually fade to frowns when they didn’t see anything emerge from that Y-shaped cloud. I saw the faces of the people on the ground at Cape Canaveral whom had also gathered for the event, and their confused expressions turning to anguish and terror as the feeling of doom billowed miles above them.

    That was a terrible day for sure.

  4. I can remember this day quite clearly. I was in 8th grade science class. Someone came and told our teacher and then he shared the news with the class.

    What I remember most vividly was how much this upset our teacher. He was a younger man, probably in his early forties, and he was very upset by the news. He kept it together for the students but he clearly had a hard time answering our questions. He had applied for this opportunity and was obviously upset because what had happened could easily have been him.

    We didn’t watch much TV in our house so I don’t remember the fallout on the news or the news conferences and speeches but I can remember my teacher and how much it impacted him.

    • Thanks for sharing, Jeremiah. That must’ve been an especially tough one for your teacher since he’d applied for that opportunity. It gave me chills just reading that.

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