Brimming with confidence and enough knowledge of German to keep the students guessing, I reported for duty. I was shown my classroom (I recall there were no windows to the outside.), found the teacher's plan for the day and I welcomed the kids.
The morning announcements completed, I started the lesson. Then, an interruption. There had been a problem with the shuttle launch- the shuttle that held America's first teacher in space. No details were given- possibly because none were known- and then the loudspeaker went silent. I took it for granted that it wasn't too bad- maybe there was an explosion but the crew bailed and were floating in the ocean, waiting for rescue.
There was no TV in the classroom. There was only a radio, and reception was not great. The kids seemed oblivious to any issues (I thought school kids all over were supposed to be watching this launch?), and the day went on as planned. I heard no real news from the outside until I got into the car to go home. The talk on the radio was only about the failed launch- I could not wait to get home and watch the TV news.
Nothing had prepared me for the sight of the disaster. It seemed as if the thing just vaporized- it was there and then... pooof! Gone. The white contrails hinted at a destination... follow me and find... what? There was no coverage of the shuttle itself slamming into the ocean at 200 mph- the cameramen didn't know to look for it there. There was just blue sky and white vapor and... nothingness.
I didn't know any of the crew personally, but I had been following the story since its inception. A teacher was on board. A teacher. Like me. Like my mentor teacher, who had applied to be on the shuttle. He was a runner-up. He had gone through all the training, just as Christa McAuliffe had. His classroom was covered with NASA posters and he had tons of photos, personal souvenirs, shuttle toys, astronaut gadgets, and "space" food. I was literally immersed in Challenger culture from the first day of school until I left there. It was exciting to say the least, but it made the disaster that much harder to watch.
Of the moments I remember... the coverage of the lift-off, the faces of the crowd looking up in wonderment, the heart-wrenching pictures of Christa McAuliffe's parents... the thing I remember most is the speech given by President Reagan. It ended like this:
I still have the Time and Newsweek issues that covered the event. I've been to Arlington Cemetery and viewed the Memorial to the Challenger crew. I've talked to my many students and my daughter about that day in January 1986. I hope that when they "slip the surly bonds of earth", they do indeed "touch the face of God".