There is a particular event in my high school life that still affects me in a very deep and emotional way. You see 24 years ago, at 8:30am (Pacific time) I was sitting in one of my favorite teacher's classes watching history about to be made: in just a few moments, the first civilian (Christa McAulliffe, a TEACHER!) was about to be launched into space aboard the space shuttle Challenger. What made this even more exciting, at least to us, was that our teacher, Mrs. Beamer, had been in the final 25 applicants to be considered for this mission. Needless to say, she was VERY excited and had been talking about this day for weeks, if not months, prior.
Mrs. Beamer (biology) had all of the qualities of a world-class teacher. She was warm and caring. She was tough on the students, raising the expectations at each level of learning just enough to make you work for it without becoming discouraged. She was also an interesting teacher. You actually wanted to hear what she was talking about in class because she brought the subject matter to life.
So here we were, watching the tv that had been brought into the room specifically for this day and also watching Mrs. Beamer bounce around the room in joyous anticipation as we awaited the launch. You really couldn't help but feel swept up in the moment. Even some of the other kids that were, shall we say, "less than scholarly" were pumped up. As the lift-off time approached, the entire class chimed in on the countdown: 10...9...8...7...6..5...4...3...2...1...
8:38:00 PST. The space shuttle Challenger began it's ascent into the morning sky of Florida. At exactly that time, a round of shouts, applause, and giddy laughter erupted in our classroom, with Mrs. Beamer being one of the biggest sources in the room.
8:39:08 PST. We hear Mission Control inform the shuttle crew that they are "go for throttle up" and the response from Commander Dick Scobee, "Roger, go at throttle up." Mrs. Beamer is talking out loud about how thrilling it must be for Christa, knowing that her students are watching her make history.
8:38:13 PST. With the camera focused on a side view, we watch the space shuttle Challenger dissapear into a massive white cloud that begins at the rear and almost immediately envelopes the entire craft. The camera switches to a wider shot and we see the cloud is filled with flames and two seperate smoke plumes in opposite directions. There is complete silence in the classroom. Nobody knows exactly what we have just witnessed. Everyone stares at the screen.
As the weight of what was happening began to take effect on us, eyes slowly turned to our teacher. For a few moments, Mrs. Beamer stared straight ahead. Not moving. Not speaking. Then, as if a door had been suddenly opened, we watched a teacher break into tears and rush from the room. Many of us, myself included, were in complete shock. In the space of 10 minutes, we had gone from joyous celebration to utter despair and loss.
When she returned to school a few days later, Mrs. Beamer spoke very little about the tragedy. When she did bring it up, she did so with tears welling up in her eyes. That more often than not prompted the same reaction in much of the class. One thing that she did tell us, and it will live in my memory forever, is that the quest for learning involves more than just what you read in a textbook. People risk their lives so that others may learn from what they do. Sometimes, the ultimate price is paid for that lesson.
"We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God.'" - President Ronald Reagan, January 28, 1986
Remembering the crew of STS-51-L today: Commander Francis "Dick" Scobee; Pilot Michael J. Smith; Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka; Mission Specialist Judith Resnik; Mission Specialist Ronald McNair; Payload Specialist Gregory Jarvis; and Payload Specialist Sharon Christa McAuliffe. God speed.