I remember this day in 1986 very vividly. I was in the first grade. The principal came over the intercom to the entire school, and instructed the teachers to turn on the televisions that were propped in the upper corner of each classroom, and set them to channel 4, so we could all watch the shuttle launch.
73 seconds later, she came back on to tell them to turn the TVs off.
My teacher sat at her desk and cried, in hard sobs. All of us kids gathered around her to try to comfort her. It was awhile before she pulled herself together. I don’t think I had ever tried to attend to a person who was upset before that. Certainly not an adult.
She explained that, although it was very sad for everyone, it was particularly hard on her because Christa McAuliffe was a teacher. She felt like one of her own was going up there, and that was especially powerful for her, because before that, it was only very tough guys who did so, men who were very different from her. She told us that we had immediately reminded her why she loved what she did, and thanked us. I learned a lot about empathy that day.
For the shuttle generation, it cast a long shadow on space exploration. It had been almost 20 years since Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee died during a training exercise in Apollo 1. Shuttles were thought to be much safer than the previous rockets, if not practically impervious, and there were a lot of toys marketed to children. Space flight was something in the real world that filled us all with a sense of wonder, and reality struck hard on that day. This was the last time I remember watching any kind of live event in a classroom setting, I doubt there has been an occasion for it since. Even after I’ve been out of school, it’s hard to imagine an entire elementary school risking witnessing the potentially unexpected.
Several years later, when I was in fifth grade, a tremendous English teacher that I had entered our class (very secretly, as it turned out, because she really wanted us to win) into a NASA initiative to have children choose the name of the newest shuttle. She was a very pragmatic individual, and she didn’t pull many punches in explaining what the world was like to us, all on the verge of being teenagers. “NASA was very reluctant to continue to try to engage with kids after Challenger,” she told us, “but going to space is very important, and you should all continue to be excited about it, even though there’s risk.”
We spent weeks choosing a name and then putting together a package to petition for it. Although our class didn’t specifically win, the one that did had picked the same name as us: Endeavor.