Thirty years ago today I was in the library of my university trying to complete a literature review for my Senior Honors Thesis. In those days, the Internet was barely a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye, so there was no such thing as a Google search. I had to reserve my 11:45am time slot with a librarian weeks in advance. She ushered me into this back room with a computer the size of a sectional sofa, then she carefully typed in my search terms and we waited. And waited. And waited. Normally this would take a couple of minutes, but those few minutes dragged on and on with no results.
Finally she said, “It’s probably because of the Challenger explosion. I bet people are trying to find out information about the shuttle program.” She said this in such a matter-of-fact way that none of it really registered. The only thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to get my database search that morning.
I walked over to the Student Union, thinking about what she had said. The Challenger explosion? What did that mean? Up to that point, the shuttle program had been an unqualified success. So much so that we didn’t even entertain the possibility of something going horribly wrong. When I walked into the Union, large groups of people were gathered around the TV’s. Most everyone was quiet, riveted to the screen. Then I saw the replay what they had seen a half-hour earlier: the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded before our eyes. Two white plumes of smoke shot off from a large smokey fireball. All the crew were presumed dead.
I remember how somber the entire campus felt that day, how deeply the tragedy gripped the whole country. The shuttle program was a point of admiration and pride for Americans. During these middle-Reagan years, the country was mostly feeling optimistic and envisioned a bright future. But the loss of the Challenger was a blow to our confidence, to our sense of well-being. Just as we were finally beginning to rebuild trust in institutions that had let us down with Vietnam and Watergate, a sense that anything bad could happen at any time hit us hard again. NASA, as depicted in Apollo 13 and other films, was considered nearly infallible. Now even they were subject to letting us down in a big way.
Through the years, we have matured in some ways as a country, more fully aware that institutions and individuals are always going to be flawed, that there will never be a perfect world. Today we are struggling with trusting other organizations–the federal government, local police forces, mayors and municipal directors. Challenger leaves us a sad legacy: the loss of a dedicated crew, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, the tarnishing of a stellar institution, and the sense that we live in a world that will never be fully what we want or need. The trick for all of us is to continue living our lives with optimism and hope, even when we feel afraid or let down.