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Your Memories of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

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The crew of the doomed US space shuttle Challenger in November 1985. Front row from left are astronauts Mike Smith, Dick Scobee and Ron McNair. Back row from left: Ellison Onizuka, school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judith Resnik.  (NASA/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, households and classrooms across America excitedly awaited the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger. The much-hyped mission was particularly notable for its team of unusually relatable astronauts—in particular, schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. When the shuttle exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, it prompted an outpouring of grief that few who lived through it will ever forget.

For many, the accident was a wound to America during a time of historically high levels of patriotic confidence. In an address to the nation after the accident, President Ronald Reagan imbued his tribute with the nobility and higher calling that the nation had already come to associate with the astronauts. “We will never forget them,” he said. “Nor the last time we saw them this morning, as they prepared for the journey, and waved goodbye, and slipped the surly bonds of Earth to touch the face of God.”

The tragedy was found later to be caused by the failure of O-ring seals in the right solid rocket booster. After the accident, the shuttle program was suspended for almost three years.

For new generations living in a post 9/11 world, it can sometimes be difficult to comprehend the sheer emotional impact that the Challenger disaster had—not just on America, but internationally as well. Last September, Netflix and executive producer J.J. Abrams delved into the disaster and its impact with a four-part documentary series, Challenger: The Final Flight.


Before the show premiered, KQED Arts gathered first-person perspectives from 10 people whose childhoods were impacted by the tragedy.

Ned Raggett was aged 14 and in San Diego:

“I had finished my English midterm early and I was in the library. [A teacher] came in with a grave look on her face and said something about what had happened and I did not believe it. After that, the day is a blur lost in time—but it was a grim one. The whole run-up from Christa McAuliffe getting the spot on the shuttle to the rolling aftermath is a fraught experience that still lingers heavily in the memory.”

Alexis Arenas was aged 9 and in Baltimore:

“Christa McAuliffe was like a rock star. A teacher in space! They had built her up to hero status. My younger sister and I were home due to a snowstorm and we were so excited to see the Challenger launch. Our mother quickly shut off the TV. The pall that struck us, and the nation, is something we didn’t see again until 9/11. But there was comfort in being so united in grief. My two sons now attend an elementary school named after [one of the Challenger astronauts] Dr. Ronald McNair. The whole school has a space theme. It’s wonderful to see his memory is not lost to the annals of time.”

Paul Cox was 12 and in Huntsville, Alabama:

“I was home with a pretty significant case of chicken pox. I remember my mom coming into my room crying. The next few months were really tense, because my dad was one of the thousands of aerospace engineers who worked on the shuttle. Specifically, he worked on the solid rocket boosters. When it was officially blamed on a bad O-ring there was much relief, because that was the domain of an entirely different company than the one he worked for. But I’ve never really talked with him about that time as an adult. I imagine he was sick with guilt for weeks and weeks.”

Erika Skinner was 8 and in Ellicottville, New York:

“My class watched it live. Our teacher quietly turned off the TV and we didn’t discuss it. It was bewildering. I want to say we eventually talked about it. Maybe the following day? But in the immediate aftermath I think all the adults were so shocked and unprepared that they just went through the motions for the rest of the day. Everyone just went numb. I remember thinking that because no one was making a big deal out of it that maybe I imagined what I saw. That maybe I misunderstood it and that’s just what it looks like when a shuttle is launched and everyone is fine.”

Emily Chaney was 9 and in Denver:

“I remember the quiet that took over the room. The TV being switched off. One of those ones on wheels. I remember teachers crying.”

Chaki Sklar was aged 6 and in Van Nuys:

“When the teacher started crying it was like a domino effect where the rest of us started crying too. I remember we were just hugging each other weeping and weeping and weeping.”

Kyra Rehn was aged 7 and in rural Illinois:

“I had pretended to be sick so I could skip school and watch while my parents were at work. I had made every one of my extra-credit art projects about the crew in the months leading up to it. I even made a board with the astronauts’ faces collaged. I was eating a snack and watching on a gargantuan wooden console TV. Neither ever felt the same again. I wanted to go to space at that age. My dad, an engineer, had always explained the risks of innovation to me and that helped me process it. But it affected me deeply and still does.”

Diane Aguilar was aged 7 and in Pacifica:

“When the principal walked into the room, it looked like she had just seen a loved one dying. My class was so excited about the prospect of this shuttle mission and when we found out there were no survivors, it was like the wind was taken out of our sails. I also remember seeing the news footage of it on KGO later on when I was at home with my parents. We all watched that evening as Reagan delivered his eulogy to the nation.”

Sharon Penny was 10 and in Australia:

“I learned about it via a Punky Brewster episode that aired a few weeks after. The way they dealt with the tragedy for kids was really incredible and I think probably helped a lot of children process the disaster. They talked about it in a way that felt very respectful and I remember crying a lot. I still think about that episode, because I don’t think my parents really had the capacity to provide hope or reassurance in the face of something so bleak.”


Ian Campbell was 11 and in Newfoundland, Canada:
“My family visited the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral during the summer of 1986, just months after the Challenger disaster. I was a pretty imaginative little guy, fascinated with space travel and Star Wars, and the vague promises of future technology. But I immediately picked up on the subdued, half-mast vibe. If memory serves, the place was only half-open—there were no tours available. You could wander the gift shop and look at a handful of exhibits in the front lobby. I remember one was a framed collection of hand-drawn cards from schoolkids across the US. The cards all seemed to communicate the same idea. ‘We’re sorry. But don’t give up on the dream.'”

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