Monday, January 28, 2013

The Gen X Chronicles: Part Six - The Challenger

January 28, 1986: The launch and structural failure of the Challenger Space Shuttle.

As far as events that happened on American soil that affected the American Gen X psyche the most, this would be one of the most important - some would even say the most important.

The Reagan Library and Museum in Simi Valley, CA is what I refer to as "The Gen X Chronicles" because it documents many of the world events that happened during the formative years of Generation X which is a big piece of our collective experience.  One section of the museum focuses on the Challenger launch.  Gen Xers on the East Coast remember this event happening around noon of their school day.  For Gen Xers like me who lived further out west, we remember this happening in the morning, with most of the school day ahead of us.  We remember the strangeness of going through the motions of the rest of the day when an enormous catastrophe had happened.   The structural failure of the Challenger and the simultaneous death of seven American heroes that all of us school kids had spent so much time getting to know from our classrooms, left an enormous impression on us. 

Below is the Challenger Space Shuttle in a fleeting moment of exquisite beauty - clear blue sky, and an explosion of heat that was meant to propel those on board to the stars.  Did these birds, rising up in their choreographed movement with the lift-off know that disaster was only moments away?

Though parts of that day are now hazy for me, I am able to recall moments of it with intensity - the moments that were the heaviest with the most sorrow and confusion are the moments I remember most clearly.  I remember that all of us at my elementary school were very unprepared for what happened.  For some reason, I was a visitor that day in a different classroom than my own, and I remember being gathered with other kids around a TV full of anticipation.  When the unthinkable happened before our eyes, the teacher became clearly upset and very quickly shut off the TV. Through the eyes of a child, I interpreted her response as anger at us as she abruptly told me and others to leave her room immediately and go straight back to our regular class.  I couldn't completely process what was happening.  I couldn't figure out why we she was so agitated at us, and I couldn't figure out what we had done wrong.  Through the eyes of an adult, it is clear that she was holding in a huge amount of emotion and was trying not to cry in front of us.  She was in a very difficult and awkward situation.  The walk back to my regular classroom was also very awkward.  Because I could not process everything and because the shuttle images on the TV had gotten turned off so fast as I watched them, there was a part of me who thought maybe everything was still okay, that the explosion we saw was maybe just coming from some piece of debris that had fallen off the shuttle, and that everything was going as planned.  It took the rest of the school day for me to slowly process the tragedy that had happened, and the whole day felt surreal.  After a very long time of anticipating this amazing day and moment, it all came to an end in a way we hadn't expected.  A certain emptiness hovered above my head, above my school, and above my country. 

A few weeks later I wrote letters of consolation to each of the seven families. So did a lot of people.

This is the footage being played next to this exhibit - the 1/28/86 presidential address that many watched as they were experiencing the shock of the event... 

Just after the two minute point of the clip is his message to us as Gen X kids: "...the future doesn't belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave...." When I look at what my generation had to endure in the following decades all I can say is that those words proved to be true:

I used to walk through museums as a child and wonder why old people would be quietly shedding tears in corners after seeing mementos of some war or time in history that they had personally experienced.  Back then, life for me was new and I had almost nothing to look back on.  After seeing images of things that have affected me personally at museums or in documentaries, I am now the one trying to hold back the tears.  This was just one of many crises that would play out in the lives of Gen Xers. 

To those who saw the launch of the Challenger in pixels, and to those who saw this in person, you did not experience this alone.  We all experienced this together. 


(c) 2012 Writing and photography by Chloe, original photography from the Ronald Reagan Library and Museum, Simi Valley, CA. 

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