I get emotional every time I see images of Challenger exploding in the sky. The footage always feels fresh. Maybe that’s why I think I have memories of a day I was actually too young to remember.
Seven crewmembers boarded Challenger on January 28, 1986. For the first time ever, one was a civilian. Millions of people tuned in to watch the launch on live TV. But 73 seconds after lift-off, something went horribly wrong. The shuttle broke apart, killing everyone inside.
President Ronald Regan best expressed the shock and sorrow felt after their deaths. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"
Those fallen explorers remind NASA not to take safety for granted. But they were not the first or the last to perish. The Challenger disaster happened almost 19 years to the day after three astronauts died on Apollo 1.
NASA has only lost two shuttles. The other, Columbia, disintegrated on re-entry exactly 17 years and four days after Challenger exploded. Columbia was carrying seven astronauts.
NASA has launched 132 shuttle missions. But the program is set to end this year after three decades. As the space agency moves into an uncertain future, it feels right to reflect on sacrifices of the past.