"Obviously a major malfunction"

In 1986, at the age of 13, I was so excited about space shuttle launches that I would no longer watch them on TV.

So intense was my wish for space travel to become an ordinary, everyday reality, that I felt that broadcasting each shuttle launch, live, was making it into an exceptional situation instead of one that should be routine.

For this reason, on the morning of January 28, 1986 (20 years ago today), I did not join the other kids crowded around the TV in my school to see the shuttle launch.


"Did you hear what happened to the shuttle?" someone asked me later. "It blew up when it was taking off!"

"That's not very funny," I replied. "You shouldn't make up stuff like that."

"I'm not making it up!"

"Are so!"

"Am not!"

"Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! The shuttle didn't blow up."

But one by one, my friends confirmed for me what would have been my worse fear, had it ever occurred to me. Until that day, the space shuttle, like my parents, my teachers, and Jim Butterfield, was invincible.


That night, I saw for myself the footage on the news. The various TV stations kept playing it, over and over again. Especially the part after the explosion, where the shuttle debris bifurcated and fell downward into the ocean. Over and over again.

"Do they have to keep showing that part?" my sister asked at one point.

I wish they didn't, but I couldn't stop watching.

"Obviously a major malfunction," explained the eeriely calm voice of mission control, ominously, stating the profoundly obvious, seconds after the explosion.

The guy at his desk at mission control, the slightly graying one with the moustache, had a look of surprise on his face. He probably was not seeing live video footage of the shuttle, but counting on instruments and audio, as it seemed to take a few seconds for the situation to register.

"Challenger go with throttle up," he had said just moments earlier. I keep hearing those words, over and over again.

The crowds at Cape Canaveral, who had gathered to witness the launch, kept staring into the sky, trying to understand what they had just seen. I think that few of them realized, or believed, that the spacecraft had just exploded. That most of them thought this must be a normal part of the launch.

Because space shuttles carrying 7 astronauts don't just blow up 73 seconds after take-off.

And still the news kept showing the footage of the shuttle exploding, falling into the sea off the coast of Florida, over and over again.


I was a bit naive at that age. I figured they would just launch another shuttle the next day. The reality and finality of the situation still escaped me a bit.

"You know, people ask me where I was when JFK was shot," one teacher told me. "One day, someone will ask you where you were when the space shuttle exploded."

"What's a JFK?" I replied.


A few years ago, I found myself in Orlando to attend a wireless conference. I found out by chance that, just a few hours before my return flight, a shuttle launch was scheduled. My colleagues and I all got up at 3:00 am, piled into my rental car, and drove out to Cape Canaveral to see the launch.

We were several miles away from the launch area, but it was still a beautiful sight. The intense brightness of the shuttle's exhaust turned night into day, and the rocket streaked into the air far more quickly than I expected.

Throughout it, I kept remembering the Challenger explosion of 1986. This time, however, there was no major malfunction, and afterward, we all headed out to find breakfast.


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