Cold, bright day in Vienna, Virginia, on a day I wasn't at school -- Fairfax County teachers were having a "work-in" day where students stayed home -- and we had NASA Select TV on our cable. And somewhere on my bedroom shelves was The Space Shuttle Operators Manual, with the foldouts, so I was going to be watching.
So I saw the loss of the space shuttle Challenger and its crew live. One of those (apparently) relatively few people who did see it as it happened.
I was a 12-year-old in sixth grade, a veteran by then of my first crush (a girl named Nicka), a childhood bout of pneumonia (1984), my visits to Disneyland (and one visit to Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center), and several Navy-mandated moves (I was in my fifth school by then, Louise Archer Elementary). That morning, I lived through my first huge, huge loss. I watched one of the world's most advanced machines turn into vapor and debris. I heard the man in Mission Control say that "obviously" a "major" event had occurred, and after what seemed like half of forever and simultaneously felt like almost no time at all, I processed that the shuttle was just gone. I heard Mom cry stunned, horrified tears, for perhaps the first time in my life. My overactive, science fiction-stuffed imagination filled itself by picturing what it must've been like in the Challenger's cabin -- a wrong guess, I learned years later.
Then, I processed. I talked to Mom. I talked to Dad on the phone. I watched the news, and watched the news, and watched the news. At some point I pulled myself away, for a time, but then, later, more news. I even sat outside briefly, still in pajamas, my body heat radiating into the cold as I watched the sky. And at some point I tasted the soup I'd set out on a plush-bottomed platter that I could hold on my lap, and found to my surprise that it was cold. I couldn't remember how long I'd had that bowl out. I carried it up the steps of my family's split level to the kitchen, and dumped the soup into the disposal in the sink.
There's an anecdote I learned of years later. That morning, director Terry Gilliam spoke at a college in support of his finally-released film Brazil. The movie had been threatened with being significantly re-cut against Gilliam's wishes, and he'd spent the last months of 1985 fighting to get it released in a version he approved of, and while it had been released wide that January and not done well most places, it had struck a chord with college audiences. Gilliam spoke to that audience about how the world of Brazil was an exaggerated version of ours, with all infrastructure made obvious: duct work hanging from ceilings, for instance. He pointed out that the same sort of equipment was all around the students: behind the neatly-paneled and -painted lecture hall walls were pipes and wires, and any of that was at risk of breaking. No nefarious reason, no terrorism: sometimes things simply wear out, and the results can be catastrophic. Gilliam argued with some students over this; he could tell that some of them weren't quite buying it. The talk went on, and finished, and Gilliam left the hall -- and saw people walking past, stunned. He asked what had happened. Someone told him. "The space shuttle exploded," that person said. No, it turned out, but: what he'd been talking about in that lecture hall had just happened.
It was a loss, a preventable loss, and it was a blow to so many. In the microcosm, it was a blow to me. Years later, Mom said that it took a long time for me -- intense me, serious me, not-yet-very-humorous me -- to get over it. In September 1988, when the shuttle Discovery made the first post-Challenger launch, I asked in one of my freshman year high school classes if the launch had happened. A known jerk said "Yeah, I heard it exploded."
I nearly jumped desks, I wanted so much to hit him.
And later that day, having heard that the shuttle had launched successfully, I went to my high school's library to watch a video of the launch...and was still deeply, deeply nervous. Like I couldn't accept that it could work again, or that I was worried that the news I'd heard from non-jerks was wrong and that this shuttle was also lost. You might not remember, but on that launch there was an optical illusion captured on camera. Looked like exhaust coming from somewhere it's not supposed to. And seeing the tape, KNOWING that it had worked, I again got worried. I again got scared. The possibility of loss, of an accident, had lodged in my head in a place it hadn't been before that morning in early 1986. To this day, the first minute-plus of any shuttle launch is a nervous time. And after the loss of the Columbia and its crew in 2003, the landings took on that fear, more than before. Losing a shuttle that way was no longer an abstraction, sadly.
There's been more loss since then. More life, too, thank everything -- the happy and the wonderful still happen along with the sad and the tragic -- but it's easy to remember that younger, wounded me, 25 years ago.