Thursday, January 28, 2016

Challenger Disaster - 30 Years Today - A Gen X Coming of Age

On January 28, 1986, I was a sixteen-year-old who was home sick and watching the NASA launch of the space shuttle Challenger. A friend of mine was also home and we were talking on the phone as we watched. And we shared a nation's moment of confusion, disbelief, and then a slow deepening horror. It was a pivotal moment, watching as a high school student and knowing America's first citizen astronaut - a teacher - was on board. Later, friends would share their feelings that day as classes rolled TV's into rooms to watch, and we all felt that agonizing sense of emptiness at the tragedy ... and a growing realization of American and scientific fallability.

As I reviewed posts of the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster, I ran across a thoughtful and beautifully crafted reflection of the tragedy through the lengs of Generation X. Chloe, a Gen X blogger at Lights from the Pixel, shared this perspective on The Challenger Disaster and Generation X:

In the mid '80s, while the members of Generation X were growing up, modern American public educations standards were at an all-time low.  The Reagan Administration saw the upcoming Challenger launch as a way to remind the nation of the important role of teachers and maybe to reboot hope in the American school system.  Out of thousands of applicants to the Teacher in Space Project, the charismatic Christa McAuliffe was chosen.  Those of us in elementary school closely followed these events from sources like NASA and Weekly Reader, so that these people would continually be on our minds, so that they could, in every sense, become our heroes, so that we could know their stories and their lives, so we would love them.  The pint sized propaganda was delivered to our desks every week, and we drank every drop of it.

If I allow my mind to fully go back into the moments of that day, it is hard to breathe.  I can still feel the chill of that morning on my skin from where I was two time zones away from Florida in the high altitude desert of New Mexico.  I saw it live on TV from a classroom, along with millions of other kids, and watched quietly as the twisting contrail imprinted itself as an image of horror onto the collective consciousness of my generation, like some coiled up snake that struck without warning. Palpable feelings of excitement degenerated into confusion and then anxiety; and then the teacher abruptly shut off the TV.  We were told that it was over and to get back to our desks.  In that moment that I was supposed to stoically return to school work, I found myself caught in some delicate place between life and death, somewhere between hope and hopelessness.  It took me the whole day to process what had happened, and as I did, an emptiness hovered above my head, above my school, above my country.

I remember in the late afternoon of that day that a local radio station came on the news with a request for a song that they feared would be misunderstood. Hundreds of people had called the station asking to hear David Bowie's classic "Space Oddity." They spoke at length before playing the song, not wanting to be misunderstood or considered dis-respectful. They played the song and, despite their explanation before and after, were still criticized for playing the song. But for many of us, it was a necessary and soothing form of mourning.

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