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The Day of the ‘Challenger’

The ramblings of an adult remembering the shuttle accident through the eyes of a twelve year old.

So I remember that day quite well. In north-central West Virginia, January 28, 1986 was a snow day. No school in Harrison County. Those are the words every twelve year old loves to hear in January. Back then, we still had our summers, filled with basketball and music. (I always liked to type up the Top 40 tunes each week, as announced by Casey Kasem, on a typewriter. The red ribbon would be saved for the number one song!) Also, they didn’t keep extending the school year into the middle of June, nor start in August, to make up for missed snow days, like today.

A Commodore 128 BASIC screen. At the ready.

Anyway, that particular Tuesday morning, I was busy plugging away at a computer keyboard in my bedroom. I was (what do you mean, was?) one of those nerdy kids. Synchronized-watch-with-the-school-bell kinda nerdy kids. Yeah, I really did that kind of thing… That morning I was busy writing a basketball simulation program on a Commodore 128 computer. I don’t have a screenshot of that program or a copy of it anywhere, but I remember it well. It was a side-on shot of a basketball court and backboard. When you pressed the space bar a basketball would head toward the hoop and it would randomly vary a few pixels left or right, and occasionally you’d “make a basket.” Anyway, it was just the kind of thing I was likely to do on a snow day.

“Jay, come in here,” mom yelled from the living room. “The shuttle’s going up.” “Oh, yeah, that’s happening today,” I thought. So… pack it up on the C-128, and head into the living room.

I don’t know to this date if I witnessed it live, or it was the first of many replays. “Something’s not right. That doesn’t look right.” Even at twelve, I knew what a shuttle launch should look like, and this wasn’t it. I don’t think mom believed me at first. But the news was now “breaking” — the shuttle had exploded. There would be no survivors, despite all the early reports of debris “with a parachute on it.”

Shortly after the explosion I shoved a blank tape in the VCR and started recording. CNN most of the day, NBC off and on. I think I got the NBC Nightly News that night at 6:30pm. I’m replaying the tape now. Bernie Shaw and Lou Waters interviewing everyone they could get their hands on. Tom Mintier, who sincerely struggled to put into words what he was seeing. This was one of the first instances of “breaking news” and there wasn’t a manual on how to proceed. There are some YouTube videos covering those first heartbreaking hours, though I think they will only play on YouTube. Links below…

11:00am – Noon:


Noon – 1:00pm:

At any rate, that day left quite an impression on a twelve year old me. That Sunday, instead of typing out the weekly Top 40 songs, I sat down at my typewriter and compiled a timeline of events from launch to explosion, including the words from mission control. This time, the red ribbon was saved for the last line, the time of the explosion…


In 1998 I got to see a launch in person, witnessing the John Glenn launch (“The Launch”) firsthand. It was an amazing experience, and I’m glad I got the opportunity to do it before the shuttle program ended in 2011.

Not my picture, but NASA's...
(Not my picture, but NASA’s…)

Several years later, when our daughter was born, we gave her the middle name Krista, inspired by Christa McAuliffe, who of course was selected as the first Teacher In Space. And a few years later, I got to accompany my son to a Challenger Center in Wheeling, West Virginia, and participated in a “Return to the Moon” mission. He was on the navigation team, but I may have enjoyed the trip more than he did.

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And in December of 2010 we visited Kennedy Space Center, where we got to relive some history and see where the shuttles launched from for over 30 years. There’s so much to see and do at KSC, it’s a must-see for any space fan.

More To Come…

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