My first response to the accident? I was catatonic. “They’re all dead. They’re all dead.” I don’t know how many times I repeated it. I’m sure I sounded mechanical. That was my first response on January 28, 1986 to the shuttle Challenger disaster. At 11:39 in the morning. Seventy-three seconds of that day started the darkest period of my life.
I can still feel the tears streaming down my face. I turned and looked at Janet on the couch next to me. We were two of 35 million Americans watching the launch. She left the room after five minutes of my crying. After that many years together, she knew I needed to be alone.
Nine successful missions. Nine perfect missions. Challenger was a good bird but it was too cold that morning. The icicles at launch time should have sent up red flags. Christa. Dead.
Christa. Christa McAuliffe. She was chosen from over 10,000 applicants for the NASA teacher in space program. Had the right stuff. Wish I had her for a teacher. Charming and enthusiastic on television interviews. But they didn’t show her true commitment. I knew she was special. She knew she was special. I told her she had the chance to do something special.
Can you name the 12 men that walked on the moon? People can name the first man that walked on the moon. They will remember the first teacher in space. “Christa, no one can ever take that away from you,” I told her. People remember Christa McAuliffe as the first teacher in space, just not in the way I hoped.
First civilian astronaut. First dead civilian astronaut. Why? It was too cold. She had nothing but potential. Christa and six others. Five good men and two good women.
Hurts. Why her more than other deaths? Why does this still haunt me? Why Christa? There were six others on Challenger. Seventy-eight combat missions in Korea. I was responsible for and I saw death. I lost friends. Why does Christa’s death haunt me?
I don’t know what else happened that day. I was alone in the TV room. I remember it was dark when Janet came into told me I needed to come to the phone. William Rogers was calling on behalf of President Reagan and needed to talk with me.
William asked me to be on an investigative group to find out what happened. The Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Accident. He asked me to be Vice Chairman. Of course I said yes. I think William was surprised. It was the first public role I took for the Space Program; it was the only one.
The commission work was an onerous task. We had 120 days to complete the investigation. I didn’t think it could be done. June 9th we finished.
So hard emotionally. The Commission. I wake up some nights and think it is still March 7, 1986. That was the day the crew compartment was found on the ocean floor with the remains of all seven astronauts still strapped in. I hope to God that they never felt anything. I never looked at the photos. I couldn’t. Exposure to seawater and scavengers for a month after the explosion was not the way I would want to remember Christa. Photos were too gruesome to release. Some remains couldn’t be identified as to who they were. Buried in a common grave in Arlington. Fitting, I guess.
Seven black hearses traveled from the Kennedy launch site to the shuttle landing strip. Seven flag-draped coffins were removed and carried to the transport plane. I’m still haunted by the eerie silence where the only sounds were the tramp, tramp, tramp of the Air Force pallbearers and the astronaut escort. Deafening silence. No speeches, no ceremony, no funeral music, no birds singing. Just tramp, tramp, tramp.
Oh the kids. There are kids still emotionally scarred from watching the accident. Mine had a hard time dealing with it. Challenger launch was watched live in thousands of classrooms. Tens of thousands of children watched a teacher blow up.
Christa had asked me to visit her class when she returned. I haven’t gone. I can’t. Ever. I feel for the emotionally scarred children. Some kids still carry scars. I know it is more than just kids that are scarred. Janet left me over scars from the accident. 38 years of marriage.
After the accident, I visited Christa once. Twelve-hour drive to Concord. Sat at her grave for two days. Janet was unhappier with me when I returned than when I left. Thirty years of good marriage and 8 years of hell before she left me. Yes, a son and my Mom and Dad died in those 8 years, but everything really started to spiral down with the shuttle disaster. Divorce. Still hard to say aloud.
Yea, I’m old, but I remember January 28, 1986 clearer than anything else in my life. That date started the eight darkest years of my life.