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January 28, 2010
We all have had those experiences that will forever be etched in our minds. Some moments are simply unforgettable – and no matter how much we might like to forget them from time to time – it’s too important not to remember.
Today marks the 24th anniversary of the Challenger space shuttle tragedy. I remember the day as if it happened this morning. I was six-years-old. My parents, my brother Chris and I were visiting family in Tampa that week. We often visited Florida from our home in Riverton, Utah, but this was a special trip. We were going to get to watch history in the making. The first teacher ever to travel in space – a teacher just like my own – was about to start the adventure of a lifetime. And we were going to see the beginning of it firsthand. Like many kids my age, I wanted to be an astronaut – among other things – when I grew up. And somehow I knew that this teacher – a woman – would help pave the way for our dreams to become reality one day. The launch had been delayed several times during the week. It was finally set for the morning of Jan. 28, the day my parents had set aside to take us to Epcot Center. We woke early to get a good start on the day that was sure to be full of excitement. We listened to the AM radio station as we traveled along I-4. The launch was delayed again. Not by days this time, just minutes. And then some more minutes. It took us longer than normal to get to Orlando because we stopped to buy coats. It was exceptionally cold – even for January. The entire drive we listened to the broadcast, anxiously awaiting the countdown. We pulled up to the toll booth just outside Epcot’s drive-way and my dad silenced the radio out of politeness. Just as he was about to pull away, we all saw the familiar stream of white shoot into the sky. My dad threw the car into park, grabbed his camera and leapt from the car. The toll-booth guy just looked at my dad like he was the typical lunatic tourist. We ignored him, and the rest of us quickly scrambled out of the car too. Standing mesmerized in the middle of the huge empty road, we watched the first teacher make her way to space. Vehicles all around us had stopped too, and the only sound accompanying our awe was the click, wind, click, wind, click of my dad’s 35 mm. It was exciting and exhilarating and wonderful to witness those first few seconds. My mom teared up and said something about history in the making. I only half heard her words through the commotion of my own thoughts. As we watched the separation of the boosters, something didn’t look right. There was almost too much smoke. Even my brother and I thought there was something different. We had watched shuttle launches before. And this one somehow seemed unlike the others. Denial spread through us fast. It can’t be. But then there was more smoke. And more. Then all of sudden the slow-climbing stream of white just stopped climbing. Replaced by even more smoke. Denial was no longer an option. The four of us stood there in the middle of the street, too stunned to move, until cars began to slowly drive passed us and my parents decided it best to continue on. Epcot’s parking lot wasn’t far, and soon we were standing in the midst of hundreds of cars, bewilderment on each of our faces. We walked over to where several people huddled around a car with its radio blaring. My mom asked them if they knew what had happened. “It just blew up,” a woman said, tears streaking her face. “They’re gone.” It was what we had all feared, and maybe even already knew, but hearing those words somehow made it so much more real. It was a day I’ll never forget. Though I’m not sure I want to. Maybe by remembering – by keeping alive the memory of Christa McAuliffe and those she traveled with – a little bit of them continues to live on in me.