Challenger disaster 25 years later: Where were you when you heard?

Image credit: NASA/AP Images

I was in seventh grade when I heard that the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded over the Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 28, 1986. It was in Mr. Kottner’s science class at Irving Junior High in Berwyn, Ill. (just outside Chicago). I remember some friends I had at other schools got out of class to gather and watch the launch together on TV, but for whatever reason we didn’t at my school. It was probably a good thing — even after knowing the tragic outcome of that launch, it was horrifying to watch those people disintegrate into a plume of smoke on television news (over and over) that night.

The principal, Mr. Gardner, came on the intercom, ordinarily used first thing in the morning to broadcast the pledge of allegiance, tell us about the weekend bake sale, or congratulate the school’s spelling bee champion. It was rare and always a little jarring to hear his voice over the speakerbox in the middle of the day. This was back when space shuttles were relatively new and each launch was a big deal, so we all knew it was happening that day. We also knew that this was a special launch because school teacher Christa McAuliffe’s childhood dream of space travel was coming true. Still, despite the principal’s somber tone, none of us were prepared for him to tell us that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven people on board.

Mr. Kottner learned of the disaster at that moment as well, of course. He said a few words to the class that I can’t remember, but I do remember he was visibly shaken. The magnitude of these kinds of events doesn’t always register immediately with a 12-year old kid, whose first response to just about anything is something smart-ass or inappropriate. But the rattled reaction from Mr. Kottner — a teacher, a SCIENCE teacher no less — did affect me. Instead of reacting to his eulogy by shooting a cocky eye roll at the cute girl at the table next to me, I stared straight ahead and thought about how I just wanted to go home and talk to my parents, and how I understood why astronauts are considered heroes.

Your turn: Where were you when you heard about the fate of the Challenger?

Comments (276 total) Add your comment
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  • orville

    I was a sophomore in high school. Spanish II. The principal’s office just turned on the intercom to the radio report and let it run. It took us a couple of minutes of shocked silence to realize what was happening.

  • Julie

    I too was in the 7th grade and in science class. They came and brought TVs to all our classrooms to watch the news coverage. It was such a sad thing to watch at the time. If you are in our mid-late 30’s this is one event you will never forget.

    • Chaz Winterbottom

      You’ll also never forget the explosion of Challenger jokes that quickly followed. Anybody remember what NASA stands for?

      • Jim

        Most tastelss NASA joke ever.

      • mtang

        Give me a clue, what does NASA stand for? Also Where did Christa McAuliffe’s spend her summer vacation? All up and down the Florida coast.


      • Chaz Winterbottom

        Need Another Seven Astronauts.

      • ADiff

        Here are a few from NASA itself (I will skip the tasteless ones):

        Never A Straight Answer
        Now Another Stupid Acronym (I made this one up myself)
        Not Another Stupid Acronym (Which I heard later)
        Never A Sufficient Appropriation

      • ADiff

        One thing you’d here around NASA at the time was muttering like “We don’t have time to do it right…but we have time to do it again.” and things like that….

        Only very privately, and usually after a few cocktails, do I ponder the painful application of that query to the crew of Columbia….. :(

    • James Arenas

      I was in the 6th grade. I watched like many other kids across the country while at school. I remember the emptyness that followed. I am now 36 yrs old and reading the other comments have transported me to a sad moment in my early youth.

      • Annie

        I was in 8th grade in Canada. I even remember what I was wearing– a Peanuts sweatshirt that said ” Report That Man to Mission Control”. We were watching it on tv in our homeroom and just couldn’t believe what happened. It didn’t even seem real.

      • Meg

        I was also in the 6th grade, and we watched the whole thing over and over and over in class all day. It just happened to be 4 days before the 1st anniversary of my father’s death, and he had also been a school teacher. That day they had to send me home from school because I couldn’t stop crying.

      • Twihrd

        I was riding my bike home from class in Gainesville, FL and I was wondering why some “clouds” looked funnny and unusually misshapened, but when I got home, my mother hd the tv on and was crying, I joined her and 5 mins later was in tears as well.

    • ~JENN JENN~

      I was also in school at the time. But it’s not this day that I have the most memory for this tragedy. I was approached at my middle school in Boston a short time later by the guidance counselor. The local news affiliate was doing an hour-long special on “Kids & Death.” I was asked because I’d just lost my dad to cancer two years before (when I was 10). The local “tv” doctor wanted to do the feature on how death affects children. It was an odd day — a mix of excitement (I’m going to be on tv!), but the morbid side (We’re going to talk about death & the loss of our loved ones — WTF??)
      Christa McAuliffe’s students were on the show with us as well. I remember clearly how stricken all of us looked as we stared at each other across the room. To me, that was a harder day because it felt more REAL to me after meeting her students than the day of the crash.

    • Heather P

      I 9 and in the 4th grade. I was on a school bus when it happened and when we got to class we excitedly asked the teacher how the launch went. She told us it blew up and we didn’t believe her. They ushered all the kids in the school into the library to huddle around the one tv in the school. (Fire hazard anybody?) For some reason the only channel they could get was PBS so we got some financial news but nothing on the Challenger. Then when we got home we were subjected to watching it blow up over and over for weeks on TV.

      • Heather P

        Oops typo. I WAS 9.

  • BrandonK

    I was in 4th grade, and I remember (I think) we watched a tape of the launch after the fact. I was too young to be very aware of all the hubbub, and we didn’t have a TV at home, so I wasn’t exposed to the nightly news or anything. I don’t remember being horrified or shocked, so that’s why I assume they told us what happened and then showed us the tape or something so we could talk about it.

  • Dalia

    I was in my mothers womb. I don’t know if i had the ability to hear yet as I was barely two months old.

    • Sam

      Same here. I grew up not knowing about the disaster until the third grade, when my science class studied space and astronomy. I was so jazzed about it and wanted to be an astronaut at the time. Then I got the 1-2 punch of learning about Apollo 1 (and to an extent, Apollo 13) and Challenger. I was really upset about it. It still gives me goosebumps to this day.

    • Shelby Coman

      Apparently, Dalia, comprehension is a problem for you. The question was where were you when you heard about it, not where were you when it happened. Surely you must’ve learned about it at some point in your life…

      • MissVampireDiaries

        Shelby, explain the difference, because they seem the same to me.

        Anyways, I was just an egg. I wasn’t born until 1991. I first heard about it when I was watching “I Love The 80s.” The VH1 show was so educational. I finally learned why OJ Simpson was famous.

      • gzuckier

        “The question was where were you when you heard about it, not where were you when it happened.”

        Huh? Something happened to the Challenger?

    • stickittotheman

      Turd. Go read about Lady Gaga and then numb your empty mind by updating your Facebook status.

    • Amanda

      I was also developing in my mothers womb at the time of the disaster. However, I still remember where I was when I first heard about it. I was watching a rerun of Punky Brewster that centered around the episode. I was confused as to why they were talking about some strange event that had not happened to any of the show’s characters, and my sister had to explain to me that the Challenger was a real-life event that happened in the “olden days”(clearly our sense of time was still not fully developed). I imagine it was just as traumatic for the previous generation as 9/11 was for mine, and my heart goes out to all the people who were affected by this disaster.

  • Rolo Tomasi

    I was in a college class, freshman year and like Julie’s comment, they brought in TVs so we could watch the news.

  • A. Rae

    I was in HS, and after hearing what happened while we were at lunch, we went to a friends house to watch TV and never even ended up getting back to school that afternoon… Lots of Seniors ended up doing that, that was the first and last time I recall taking a half-day like that, because we were all in shock…

    • Anne

      I was in 9th grade (leaving 3rd period chior for lunch and 4th period geometry) and we WANTED to go home — one classroom had a TV on and saw it, but the school shut that TV off and refused to let anyone turn on a TV or radio for the rest of the day. All of us wanted to go home so we could see what REALLY happened. There was all of this speculation that became gossip, people saying it had been hit with a missle, that people on the ground died, etc. By the time school was out, I began to think it was someone’s realy bad joke. Didn’t get home until 4:00 to see what had really happened.
      One thing I remember was how upset Tom Brokaw was. He had apparently gotten to be friends with Judith Resnik when he covered previous launches, even to the point that he and she would makes bets with one another for cases of beer on whether a launch date would stand.
      And for my money, Reagan’s “Challenger” eulogy, written by Peggy Noonan and delivered by him that night on national TV, is one of the best speeches ever. It’s simplicity is beautiful and it accomplishes so much in such a short time. A great eulogy to memorialize seven great people.

  • Tajah

    I was in grade 7 too. I was home watching the launch live on TV. I remember the Challenger exploding and holding my breath, hoping, praying that somehow they could have survived. Maybe the astronauts had a chance. I was probably in shock for the rest of the day, especially as the news repeated the footage over and over again. I cried, thinking of the astronauts families and friends.

    • Melissa

      I was in 3rd grade. Most of the classes had tv’s to watch. I remember feeling the same way. Hoping that maybe somehow they survived. Such a horrifc day.

  • weezy1

    I was coming out of a British History class at college and hoped I hadn’t missed the launch…will never forget the look of hope turned to horror on the faces of Christa McAuliffe’s parents, especially her mother. I was in the 7th grade and watched the first shuttle launch at school. Still sad after all these years.

  • Pan

    It was my first birthday. My dad was out shopping for a birthday gift for his new baby and he saw some people standing around a TV at the store and that’s how he heard.

    • The True Pan

      Stealing my handle=not cool :p

  • Shilpa

    I, too, was in a science class. Biology, 7th grade. I can still remember the moment I heard the news like it was yesterday.

  • Moester23

    I was in my 4th grade math class. Our teacher was gone for a long time and then came in and told us. I remember one kid started laughing because he didn’t believe it. Our teacher turned to the chalkboard and wrote the kid’s name with FIVE checkmarks after it. Then we knew it was serious.

  • Lindsay

    I was sitting in my 3rd grade class as I watched along with my classmates. Our school later gathered as a whole to plant a tree in honor of the lost astronauts. It was such a somber moment and one I’ll never forget.

  • Jeannette

    Second grade. We watched it. It was absolutely awful. I’ll never forget that day, and it still makes me so sad to think about.

    • Diggity

      Second grade for me too. We were watching live. It was crazy- first big event I can really remember.

      • Leah

        I was in first grade. They hadn’t brought in Tvs for me class but the older kids were watching it. I went to the bathroom and saw the footage on the tvs. Similarly, it was the same “where were you when” event I had ever experienced.

  • Sarah

    I was just born when it happened. Happy birthday to me….

    • jasper

      WOW. you seem like a real nice person.

      • Shelybly

        Jasper I am pretty sure that was a sarcastic comment, as this is not a happy memory.

      • jasper

        you seem like a great woman/man as well.

    • Katie

      Similarly, I was a day old. My mom tells me everyone in the hospital was in total shock and she had to ask them why.

  • dctoronto

    I was in a HS history course. It was odd because a few year’s before a shuttle (I believe it was the Challenger) did a fly by very near us so it took on a more personal meaning.

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