Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster in 1986. For folks of my generation, this was likely the biggest “where were you” events — although I’d contend, from a personal perspective, that the assassination of John Lennon in December 1980 was also a “where were you” event for me.
For me, I was sitting in the MEPS station in Knoxville TN, awaiting transportation to Lackland AFB TX for the beginning of my military term in the US Air Force. I saw the shuttle launch, and seeing it off the platform, I walked away to use the restroom. When I got back, someone said that the shuttle had exploded, and of course, I thought they were kidding. They weren’t.
The Challenger disaster is a surreal event for me. I saw the event itself on TV, but in just a matter of hours, I was dropped into a news blackout. You see, in basic training, we didn’t have access to television news or the newspapers, and were blind to what happened next. There were rumors running around in the dorms that the shuttle was destroyed by the USSR. This view was so strong that one afternoon, when the air attack sirens were accidentally sounded, we started to secure the dorm against a blast. It was that serious.
When we’d get the chance, we’d ask our class instructors about the shuttle, and what was taking place, but it was news through a filter, and of course, part of being in basic training is focusing on the training, and not much else. Until I graduated from Lackland in March, I’d heard very little about the investigation, and was really in the dark about much of the aftermath.
Even to this day, when documentaries about the crew and mission are shown, I learn new things that I’d missed due to being “sequestered” for the six weeks following the disaster. For a kid raised on Apollo and Skylab, being in the dark during this event was definitely troubling, and a part of the “where were you” for me.