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25 Years Ago Today – The Challenger explosion | January 28, 2011

Tuesday, January 28th, 1986

It was a school day and I was in 10th grade. It was my lunch break. For whatever reason (I don’t recall) all my regular lunch buddies were doing something, so I lunched by myself. I decided to head to my next class, Spanish III, early. As I was walking to the main building complex, I noticed a couple people looking up in the sky, and remembered, “Oh, yeah, today’s the shuttle launch.”

It was the 25th Shuttle launch and it wasn’t as exciting any more. Maybe we were taking it for granted… and maybe that reflects upon what happened to the shuttle. But, I digress.

So, I stopped and looked up, and saw the contrail of white smoke arcing up in in the air, and my eyes followed it, and just as I ‘caught up’ to the shuttle (which at the distance from my school, the shuttle was just a bright dot of flame at the ‘end’ of the plume of smoke), there was a flicker and a sudden ‘poof’ of smoke. The side rockets spiraled off out of control and as I saw this, I said out loud, “That’s not good.”

I don’t know how long I stood there – seconds or a minute or longer, I can’t tell you. I was numb and could not believe what I’d just seen. next thing I know, I hear my name being screamed from one of the nearby portable classrooms – “Terrence! Get your fucking ass in here!”

It was Coach Matson, my sixth period Health class teacher. Coach Matson was rough and tumble, six foot plus, easily 280-300 pounds of bald tough guy. I don’t recall what team he was a coach on – football, probably. Anyhow, when Coach Matson curses at you to get your ass in his classroom, you don’t argue, you don’t even dawdle.

He had his tv on the live coverage of the shuttle launch. “Sit down and pay attention,” he barked, and I did. And we (he, myself, Tommy H, and a couple other kids I didn’t know) watched in stunned silence as they showed the footage over and over. They talked of looking for survivors (I think everyone was stunned so much that they weren’t processig what REALLY happened.)

Eventually, Coach Matson dismissed us, as lunch was going to be over soon and we had to get to our classes. I still arrived at Mrs. Davis’ classroom before anyone else had, and she didn’t have the tv on. I asked her if she had heard what happened and she hadn’t. She turned on the tv. (Later, she told me that she’d always remember me – she still remembered the person who told her that JFK had been killed, and she felt that she’d remember me for that same reason.)
Needless to say, we didn’t get any school work done the rest of the day. (Or, really, for the next day, either.)

This was my youth’s JFK moment. To this day, it still resonates, it still burns. I don’t have any special insight, just memories, painful, hurt memories. When the 2003 Columbia disaster happened, it felt like it was the Challenger all over again. What we were promised, and believed, would never happen, could never happen again, did happen.

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper had two cartoon tributes the next day, which I have below. I have a print of the one with the shuttle releasing the doves framed and hanging on my wall. I’ll be using the constellation as my social media avatars for the next couple days in remembrance. I encourage you to do as well.


Posted in Special Days, Video


  1. I didn’t see it live for whatever reason — my class chose not to. But I do remember that suddenly there were teachers going door to door and whispering to each other about what happened, and we caught the footage on another class’ TV. I was big, big into space at that point — definitely one of those slap of reality that you get as a kid from time to time, the true dangers in doing what we do to explore and perform science.

    Comment by Nathan Pralle — January 28, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    • Yeah, it was definitely a wake up call – I think all of the rocket disasters were before I was even born, certainly before I was old enough to even be aware of them. Growing up an hour from Cape Canaveral, the space program has always been important to me, and when the shuttle program started, it was exciting. This was the first dose of harsh reality that we had in regards to that.

      Comment by Terry — January 28, 2011 @ 1:05 pm

  2. I remember I was home sick that day, watching daytime game shows, and every channel kept replaying the explosion over and over.

    Comment by PurpleAllison — January 29, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    • I think it was just so shocking to everyone they didn’t know what to do.

      Comment by Terry — January 29, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

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