Archived: The Challenger by

The day was January 28th, the year 1986, the time 11:41 … a muggy day like every day in Florida where I grew up. The skies were the blue of Jimmy Stewart’s eyes in Rear Window. So clear and clean like the sheets hanging on the clothesline outside. I was 16 and playing hooky from the high school, only a quick green walk through the swampy woods making it a breeze to go home after lunch or before. It was too stifling for school. It was always too something for school. My grades were always A’s, so it never mattered to my mother anyway, nothing mattered to my mother. I was busy watching something like The Donahue Show, and not really paying attention lounging in the grimy yellow recliner when the phone rang. I answered.

It was my mother urgent distraught, saying, “Go outside!”

I bolted up straight, upsetting the ancient chair.

“The Challenger, something happened to the Challenger!” she said with no breath in her voice.

I didn’t argue. I always argued, but I didn’t argue. I just went outside. I knew what she meant immediately. The space shuttle was launching today out of the Kennedy Space Center just a few miles away. It had Christa McAuliffe on board, the first teacher to go into space. The space program was something precious to my family. My father was a part it all before he moved to California after the divorce. He was an FEC radio technician in the 60’s and was part of the Project Mercury team that tracked the capsule ‘Friendship 7’ as it passed around the earth on February 20, 1962. His footnote in history is that he was the first person to receive signals from Astronaut John Glenn as he came within range of NASA’s west coast tracking station from his third elliptical orbit. That was the first manned orbit around the Earth. Heady stuff in 1962.

Later he used the G.I. bill to further his education and ended up helping to design and build delicate parts for those rockets. When he was still around he would take the whole family to the beach nearest Kennedy Space Center every single day there was a launch. As we left the coast, we always stopped at a particular ice cream shop so close to the ocean that sand blew through the doors. His necessity to stop there was the banana milkshakes. Those of us too little to finish our cold conquest gave it to Pops. Pops was certainly lactose intolerant, and we invariably ended up pulling our cumbersome VW family van over, so he could tumble out and throw it all up. ‘Us kids,’ there were five of us, always thought that was pretty funny. Those were brilliant days. Days that ended with him moving across the country. He would have been crushed to see what I was seeing.

When I got myself outside, it took five seconds or less, and I looked into that perfect sky and saw two plumes of smoke going off in two directions. Not another soul populated my street, so I faced the sky alone. I realized The Challenger had blown up. I had missed seeing the explosion by about a minute. My mother must have been standing outside to see the shuttle launch. One plume had yellow smoke among the white and the other was a dirty mess of used cotton puffs. I was appalled to view those snakes of gas and smoke continue to grow longer, unbearable to watch but out of the question to look away. I knew no one would be found. I knew no one survived. My insides knew it was hopeless.

My stomach twisted as I thought about those seven people gone, evaporated, decimated in the time it took me to think that thought. Just 73 seconds after liftoff probably grinning under the G-force, they all became debris. I didn’t want to believe it as I watched that smoldering wreckage in the heavens. It’s just not possible my 16-year brain kept repeating over and over. It took a season for any of that to dissipate. It fell so slowly, an awful creeping descent.

I don’t know how long I stood there barefoot with prickle’s underfoot, maybe 15 minutes, maybe an hour. I came back to myself hearing the phone ring again inside. My mother a second time. She wanted to know how I felt, not a question she asked often. I couldn’t answer. I didn’t know the answer.

Now I know. I felt like I lost a dream, a dream I’d had since I was born. I had dreamt about adventure and new worlds. I had dreamt about possibilities. A dream it would be easy, and we could all go to space. As a teenager I couldn’t understand how I could be so empty when my life hadn’t changed at all. Now 31 years later I realize we were all dreaming the same dream, and we all lost it on the same day. My generation and the generations before me would not go to space. We understood that quest would be reserved for the talented few. The cost was too high, the failure too devastating. I carry that loss as softly as the loss of my best friend to cancer and the loss of my innocence.


Bio:  I, Katja Owen am a 48yr-old returning student back in college to get a degree in psychology. I came to Aims because I heard it was the best community college for older students, and it was close to me.