Michelle Soto’s son Michael Rojas, like lots of 10-year-olds, is fascinated by all things outer space, so last year she took him up to the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral to glory in the moon dust and old rockets and other space-cadet stuff. When they reached the exhibit on the doomed Challenger space shuttle, he was respectful but not especially touched. After all, the explosion that sent the Challenger and its seven astronauts to the bottom of the sea happened two decades before his birth, in a century that’s just dusty history to him.
But his mother burst into tears. Suddenly, she, too, was 10 years old, back in a fourth-grade classroom surrounded by shattered, speechless children and, unthinkably, crying teachers, undone by what they had just seen on a television wheeled in so they could see the Challenger carry the first American teacher to visit outer space.
“Oh, I felt it, so hard,” Soto, now a database specialist at a Miami law firm, recalled this week. “It has stayed with me all these years. I cried in 1986, and I cried last year, and I might cry now from talking to you. That was a terrible day.”
Soto and her classmates at Miami’s St. Kevin Catholic School were among millions of kids who were watching TV in school on Jan. 28, 1986, many of them on televisions with a special satellite hookup to NASA. The space agency, in a public-relations move that would go horribly wrong, had included a New Hampshire social-studies instructor named Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger crew and billed her as the first teacher in space.
Instead, she became one of the casualties in NASA’s first fatal mission. A seal on the shuttle’s rocket booster gave way just over a minute into the flight — a recording recovered later from the wreckage captured a voice in the shuttle cockpit saying “uh-oh” at that instant — and shattered the Challenger into pieces, sending the crew compartment hurtling into the Atlantic at over 200 miles an hour, all of it in front of the children’s horrified eyes.
Three decades later, many of those kids still remember the Challenger as the punch-in-the-gut moment when they first learned about the awful finality of death — and that adults cry, too.
I had never seen a teacher cry.
Santi Gabino, St. Kevin Catholic School student 30 years ago
“I had never seen a teacher cry,” said Santi Gabino, a Homestead event planner who was one of Soto’s classmates at St. Kevin. “Never. Our school was a very traditional Catholic school — by the book, let’s say, not very emotional, not terribly demonstrative. But Ms. Martinez, our teacher, was just staring blankly as she turned off the TV, and her face was wet with tears. Then, when my mom came to pick me up at the end of the day, she was crying, too.”
Within a few weeks, some of the St. Kevin kids were slyly whispering Challenger jokes on the playground, but Gabino thought it was false swagger that masked scars that remain even now.
“It was really the first time we had ever encountered anything to do with death,” he said. “My grandparents were still alive then. My great-grandparents were still alive. So I had never been confronted with death. And then to have it arrive in such a surprising and tragic way…”
For some kids, the lessons arrived in a disturbingly personal way. Charles Kerr, who runs a Hollywood printing shop, was a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Houston, the home of NASA’s mission-control center. He watched the shuttle launch on a TV in his aviation-science classroom with a rapt contingent of kids who nearly all expected to work in the aerospace industry some day.
“You could really feel the excitement growing when the countdown reached T-minus two minutes, where they always paused for a final check of the systems,” he remembered. “Everybody scrambled to get in front of a TV. We’re just a bunch of excited kids. The countdown continues … three, two, one, ignition, lift off! It’s up, and everything’s looking normal, looking good, until about a minute into the flight, and there’s a big flash and a puff of smoke, and then pieces are flying off in all directions.
“We were all looking at each other and saying, ‘That’s not normal,’ and then — almost literally — time seemed to stop for a moment. We were in shock, and then I looked at our teacher. He was a cousin, or maybe a second cousin, of Christa McAuliffe, and there were tears running down his face, and then we knew.”
Yet there was no need for a blood relationship with an astronaut to feel the terrible impact of the Challenger’s plunge into the dark, frigid sea. The shuttle and its regular TV broadcasts from orbit had rekindled Americans’ love affair with the space program, and the nation was rife with odd but tangible connections to NASA.
They stretched even into an abandoned airport hangar in Opa-locka, where Michael Dean Walker was working as a featured extra on the set of a movie called Flight of the Navigator, about a 12-year-old kidnapped by an alien space ship. Word of the disaster filtered slowly and uncertainly among the cast and crew, because it was first reported by an extra with a reputation as a practical joker who said he heard it on his transistor radio.
“Nobody really believed him,” said Walker, who now lives in Hollywood (“the Broward one, not the California one,” he clarifies with a sigh) and still works in film production. “And there was no Internet to check. No cellphones! But one by one, we began to believe. And that was surreal because so many of us were costumed as astronauts or NASA workers. I was playing a NASA technician, and I had on a white jumpsuit with a NASA insignia, which I just couldn’t stop looking at.”
Walker, 31 then, knew that film budgets were too big and tenuous to knock off production for anything as human-scale as grief. But as the day dragged on, the pauses between scenes became longer and longer. It turned out that the film’s star, 13-year-old Joey Cramer, had unraveled at the news of the disaster. “He was just having a hard time going on,” remembered Walker. “That wound up being a looong day of shooting.”
Why did something like this happen? No one has the answer to that.
Barbara Bernstein, retired Southside Elementary teacher
Some children recovered more quickly than others. Retired teacher Barbara Bernstein of Homestead remembers the kids in the fifth-grade class she taught at Miami’s Southside Elementary going to pieces at the sight of the crash.
“They were screaming ‘oh my God’ and crying, so I just ran to the front of the room and switched the TV off,” she said. “In those days, we still said prayers in school, so I just said, ‘Let’s have a quiet moment and say a prayer and think of their families.’ And that helped calm things down.”
Bernstein knew the kids continued thinking about the Challenger for months because it surfaced whenever she asked them for essays, especially one entitled Things That Make Me Afraid. “But children are resilient,” she added. “A lot of the kids I had there were immigrants and refugees from wars in Central America, and — it’s not that they accepted what happened to the Challenger, but they had all seen some hard things where they came from.
“And they were very religious, which I think helped them. More than I did. I tried, but it’s hard to know what to say. Why did something like this happen? No one has the answer to that.”
And time passed, too. The children from Southside and St. Kevin and the other schools grew into adults, and new kids came along for whom the Challenger was not a memory, just a fact learned at school, vaguely sad but eminently forgettable. Two years ago, the clothing label American Apparel used a photo of the Challenger’s smokey tumble toward the sea in an online post celebrating July Fourth. The company cringed in the face of the uproar that followed, apologizing that the photo had been picked by a designer who hadn’t been born yet on That Day.
She just thought it was a picture of fireworks.
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