Community Conversations

Were you a teacher or student watching the Challenger liftoff from the classroom?

This November 1985 NASA file photo shows the crew of the doomed Challenger space shuttle, which exploded Jan. 28, 1986, shortly after liftoff. Front row from left are: astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair; back row from left are: Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judith Resnik.
This November 1985 NASA file photo shows the crew of the doomed Challenger space shuttle, which exploded Jan. 28, 1986, shortly after liftoff. Front row from left are: astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair; back row from left are: Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judith Resnik. NASA

In commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, we asked the following question to readers on social media and the Public Insight Network recently: Were you a teacher or student watching the Challenger liftoff from the classroom? Thanks for all of your responses. Below is a sampling of your comments, some of which were edited for length and clarity. Learn more about the Public Insight Network and comment on previous discussions at MiamiHerald.com/community and select Community Conversations.

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The Challenger liftoff is a day that lives vividly in my memory. I was 9 years old and in fourth grade at St. Kevin Catholic School. Ms. Martinez had just returned from the library and was wheeling the big, boxy TV into the classroom. Mrs. Rojas, the other fourth grade teacher had brought her students to our classroom so, that we could all view it together. Both teachers were so excited to see the liftoff that would carry the first teacher into space. I recall as we collectively counted down “10-9-8-7-6-5…” As the shuttle took off, we all cheered and shouted.

The look on my teacher’s face as the explosion occurred is one which has forever been engraved in my mind. That, along with the haunting silence from the announcer at NASA, has created a memory that is as raw today as it was 30 years ago. Not knowing how to react to the horrific turn of events, Ms. Martinez quickly shut off the TV and stared at us blankly, her face in tears.

Almost immediately after, our principal, Ms. America Novas, came on the PA system and led us in prayer. The rest of the day we were allowed to read quietly and no other subjects were taught that day. I remember my mom coming to pick me up that afternoon and her eyes, along with that of all the other parents, were red from crying. There are moments in history, where we shall never forget where we were when they occurred. For me, this has always been such a moment.

Santi Gabino, Homestead

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I was in fourth grade at the time the Challenger was set to launch. We were told there would be a lot to learn and teachers prepared us well for what we were going to experience. Finally on January 28th the rolling TV cart entered the classroom and it was really going to launch, NASA said so.

I was beside myself with anticipation. I found astronauts and science interesting. Intelligent people working selflessly towards something that was bigger than themselves. Instantly they were my heroes. As a young nine year old girl they let me know I could dream, I could dream big, and succeed. I was over the moon!

My reaction came in stages. First, I was confused and hoped and prayed they were alive. Then I was stunned because even a 9-year-old could tell they were not. And last, I was saddened. The voices narrating the scene confirmed what I was seeing was real. Replays would follow. For many of us it was the first time we had seen people die. We lost intelligent and amazing human beings who where trying to add so much to this world. My eyes still water today.

Michelle Soto, Kendall

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I lived in Houston at the time and was in a High School Magnet Program for Aviation Sciences so all things NASA and Space and Space Shuttle related were exciting to us. Even more so since our instructor was related to Mrs McAuliffe. This was not only the first teacher in space, she was family! I remember the sudden lack of noise when it happened. We in the classroom were cheering at the liftoff. Everyone outside of the classroom was doing whatever they were doing outside of the classroom. Then when it happened our classroom got very quiet as we tried to figure out what just happened. As word spread through the school — and it spread quickly — more and more people started cramming into classrooms to see what was going on, and everyone just stared at the television and didn’t make a sound. An entire high school full of students and not a single one was saying anything. I don’t remember anything else being done that day, I think the entire school just kinda stopped in a kind of shock. The thing I remember most clearly was our teacher crying. He was related to Mrs. McAuliffe, I don’t remember what the relation was, but it was close enough that what happened brought him to tears. I remember him sitting in front of that television and crying all day. He sat there crying until his wife came and got him.

Charles Kerr, Hollywood

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I was in second grade at The Cushman School in Miami and clearly remember Miss Gardner having us all sit at our desks and brought in a special television for us to watch in the classroom. It was very exciting as 7 year olds to have a TV in the classroom and get to watch the liftoff live on television. I vividly remember our class counting down 10...9...8..7..6..5..4...3....2..1....Blast off! I remember seeing the fire, smoke and the shuttle falling and the classroom went very quiet. I was only 7 but I knew what it meant by the fire, smoke, fall and the look on my teacher’s face. I remember thinking to myself: “I do not want to be an astronaut anymore.” Our teacher was clearly in shock and after a few minutes turned off the television. It was a very sad day which I will always remember. My mom picked me up at the end of the school day and we talked about what happened. I was full of questions and sad about the explosion and the end of my dream to be an astronaut.

Tracy Towle-Humphrey, Miami Beach

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I was an 11th grade high school student at Martin County High School in Stuart, FL. I was outside walking in between classes; it was a beautiful, perfect weather South Florida winter day. I eye-witnessed the launch and explosion. I had seen many launches over the years from Stuart and knew this launch looked very different. I knew this was a special, inspirational mission with teacher McAuliffe and I feared the worst. I remember telling my fellow students in the outdoor walkway and immediately after in the classroom, “I think something terrible happened to the space shuttle!” I hoped I had jumped to the wrong conclusion. I was shocked.

Tom Westberg, Miami Beach

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I was a teacher in Southside Elementary school and had a fifth grade classroom at the time. I was excited to see the liftoff as they had a woman aboard and were going to do experiments. When the disaster was apparent, the children screamed and I calmed them down and turned off the television. Then I said to have a moment of silent prayer for the individuals in the disaster and their families. Some were crying and I tried to comfort them the best I could.

Barbara Bernstein, Homestead

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