In some respects, it’s hard to believe that it’s been 36 years since Challenger exploded. Back then, I was a young captain with thick hair and a thin waist.
Now, I’m pondering when I should start drawing social security, putting sunscreen on my bald spot, and enjoying the comfortable fit of sweatpants.
Patrick Air Force Base was my first duty station. Shuttle launches had become so commonplace back then that the day Challenger was set to launch, I really didn’t pay it much attention. I remember it was cold that day … by central Florida standards. Challenger was supposed to launch in the morning, but the launch was delayed because of the temperature. I was in a group of five or six Air Force officers were walking across a parking lot on our way to lunch when we heard the rumble from Kennedy Space Center several miles to the north, so we stopped for a moment to watch.
The launch appeared to be a typical daytime launch as the shuttle rode on a big plume of smoke moving upwards and down the coastline. Then, the explosion. At first, I thought the rocket boosters had separated, but it registered within seconds that it was too low for that
to happen. Then I could see the plumes begin to corkscrew in irregular patterns that I’d never seen at any other shuttle launch. And that’s when it hit me that we were watching a catastrophe unfold in real-time. It was like having the breath knocked out of you and being frozen in place as you try to wrap your head around an event that is incomprehensible. None of us moved or spoke for several seconds that felt like an eternity as time seemed to slow down to a crawl. It was a bad day, and it was followed by many more as both literally and figuratively folks had to pick up the pieces and attempt to move on.
There are certain things that get etched into your memory and remain fresh no matter how much time passes. For me, the Challenger explosion won’t fade away until I do.