Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Challenger Disaster and Generation X

As the sun rose on America that January morning, some cities lay quietly under a blanket of snow, and while the Atlantic waters lapped onto the shores of the Southeast, a threatening chill arrived with them.

As the 30th anniversary of the Challenger Disaster is commemorated and the events of that day surface once again in the media, for some of us of a certain age, the tragedy of that day is with us all the time.

I was a child of the '80s, and in the months leading up to that day, the Challenger was constantly on my mind - like in the afternoons when I would run in circles and land on my back in soft green patches of clover in the park near my house.  Through my nine-year-old eyes, I'd look out to the infinite blue of the universe, to the east where shuttles are launched, to where impossible things seemed possible, even if just for one minute.

In the mid '80s, while the members of Generation X were growing up, modern American public educations standards were at an all-time low.  The Reagan Administration saw the upcoming Challenger launch as a way to remind the nation of the important role of teachers and maybe to reboot hope in the American school system.  Out of thousands of applicants to the Teacher in Space Project, the charismatic Christa McAuliffe was chosen.  Those of us in elementary school closely followed these events from sources like NASA and Weekly Reader, so that these people would continually be on our minds, so that they could, in every sense, become our heroes, so that we could know their stories and their lives, so we would love them.

The pint sized propaganda was delivered to our desks every week, and we drank every drop of it.  By design, the anticipation of the launch hit every major nerve in me - the women among the crew became role models to the Cabbage Patch-carrying girls of the '80s.

In this Morning in America era, every kid you knew was dreaming of being an astronaut.  On the playground, we would tell each other which of the seven was our favorite.  In one way or another, every one of the seven carried with them the hopes and aspirations of our generation. Whenever I have asked fellow Gen Xers about their recollection of that day, those in elementary school were often the most impacted.  Those about halfway through elementary school, like myself, were old enough to intellectually grasp the significance of this day and yet were still young and tender enough for the event to inflict powerful emotional damage.  Because the Challenger launch became synonymous with our education and our hope in our future, the tragedy of that winter day is one of the main reasons my generation instinctively distrusts institutions.  While there was a spectrum of responses to the event, ranging from confusion to grief, the school kids affected the most will tell you that day changed their lives.  I can tell you that it changed mine.  It was a day that left my generation standing alone, in a "sunlit silence".

Custom watercolor by Emblaester, artist on

If I allow my mind to fully go back into the moments of that day, it is hard to breathe.  I can still feel the chill of that morning on my skin from where I was two time zones away from Florida in the high altitude desert of New Mexico.  I saw it live on TV from a classroom, along with millions of other kids, and watched quietly as the twisting contrail imprinted itself as an image of horror onto the collective consciousness of my generation, like some coiled up snake that struck without warning. Palpable feelings of excitement degenerated into confusion and then anxiety; and then the teacher abruptly shut off the TV.  We were told that it was over and to get back to our desks.  In that moment that I was supposed to stoically return to school work, I found myself caught in some delicate place between life and death, somewhere between hope and hopelessness.  It took me the whole day to process what had happened, and as I did, an emptiness hovered above my head, above my school, above my country.

So much dialogue was happening in our classrooms in the months leading up to that day about how anything was possible, that we could be astronauts, that we could be anything we wanted when we grew up, and that the shuttle launch was going to be the moment that would demonstratively prove this to us.  When the moment defining how anything was possible went entirely wrong, I felt panicked to my core - maybe my future was going to be dark, maybe my dreams would be swallowed whole with no explanation.  Not only did our heroes die that day, but a lot of our hope did, and much of this hope was replaced with fear about the future - an anxiousness that has stayed with us our whole lives.  Many of the traits that Generation X is known for, from our negativity to our cynicism, can be traced back not only to the state of society in our formative years, but to the exact date of January 28, 1986.

That evening, millions of us gathered around TVs once again, and this time it was to watch Reagan deliver a speech about the catastrophe.  His words made the event unbearably real, and while he spoke, my heart was forced to shift from somewhere within the first stage of grief, denial, to somewhere within the dark gravity of the next stage of grief - anger.  The only words from the speech that gave me any comfort were that our fallen heroes had "touched the face of God."  When he quoted the poetry of aviator John Gillespie Magee Jr. in the speech, I did not know that he, too, had died at a far too young age - during WWII.  I could not yet fully know of the service and suffering of the GI Generation before me, of all who had lost their lives in order to pass on freedom before my own generation was ever born.  And what the older generations did not know, was that, as icicles formed around the shuttle that night before, that the world had already had become a much bleaker place than the one they thought they passed on to us, and when morning came, the disaster confirmed it.

In mourning the death of Christa McAuliffe, the Generation X student body of her school came together for a memorial service in the school gym.  "Life in a Northern Town" by Dream Academy was the song that concluded the service.  While this song is a quintessential piece of Gen X music, the lyrics actually reference the experiences of Christa's generation - the Boomers.   In the song, it mentions that in the aftermath of JFK's assassination, "it felt like the world would freeze."  On January 28, 1986, it did.  Society told Generation X who our heroes should be, and made us love them.  And from our schools we watched our heroes perish, so that no place, not even the familiarity of our own classrooms, not even the "high untrespassed sanctity of space" seemed safe after that.  All my heroes were taken away from me that day.  In front of my eyes.  All seven of them.

On January 28th, 1986, Gen X witnessed the launch and loss of a shuttle crew, just as we watched our parents' marriages dissolve, just as we watched society dissolve.  That decade, educational quality had trended to an all-time low and divorce rates had reached an all-time high - and those statistics weren't just numbers, they were our families.  As Generation X was growing up, there was this idea that kids should fend for themselves, solve their own problems, and more or less raise themselves.  Society told parents they should be considerably more concerned with self-actualization or self-fulfillment than with parenting. Ten miles above the earth there was a structural failure that took seven lives, and meanwhile, on earth, there was a structural failure in how a generation was being raised.  Generation X wasn't just the latchkey children of broken homes, we were the latchkey children of a broken society.  Something is truly wrong when children are conditioned over a long time to anticipate an event, and are told that their own futures are tied to this moment, only to watch that event unfold like some kind of nightmare.  "Obviously, a major malfunction" were the words of the NASA launch commentator. Those words haunt us, because, in many ways, it not only articulated a moment that we were unprepared for, but also defined the background of our formative years, and even, in some ways, our entire lives.  Gen X grew up too fast and any lingering naivety dissipated alongside the vapor of the shuttle that day.

We study history to learn from it and to not repeat its mistakes.  Let us, as a society, as human beings, never let another January 28, 1986 happen again - not to heroic explorers, not to children whose hope in the future is hinged on a moment that could have been full of possibility, but instead was full of malfunction and fear.  It altered the collective psyche of my generation - how we see the world, our lives, and our futures.  We are still mourning.  That day for us, for Generation X, was the day that the world froze.  It affects who we became and how we see the world, thirty years later.


A Journey to the Challenger Memorial in Palo Alto, California, January 2016...the seeds from these Redwoods orbited the earth in the Challenger Shuttle one mission before the disaster took place, and here are several photos I took of the park:

My family and I went here to remember the day in 1986 that forever altered history, to remember the seven people we lost that day.  This small memorial grove sits in the back of a park.    

As I approached this grove of trees, a train was speeding by just behind here and at the same time, I could feel my life speeding before me, flashing through my mind were the images of my whole life.  It was is my soul was trying to tell my mind how pivotal this experience was to the entirety of my life and my being.

Redwoods stand in a circle - one for each of the astronauts.  To stand in the very middle of these trees is powerful.  You get the feeling someone, or several someones, are watching over you.  From the large branch that had fallen in the middle, I took some small pieces home with me as a memento. 

Each tree is numbered, coincidentally, or maybe not so coincidentally, 
with the birth years of Gen Xers. 

Such an extraordinary piece of history and of science.  Experiments are an important part of shuttle missions and the seeds from these trees were part of an experiment - they were in the aboard the Challenger and orbited the earth over a hundred time as we experienced the summer of 1985. To physically walk up to a space that represents, or even encompasses an event that altered your life is intense.  Many say that the Challenger Disaster is one of the events that most affected Generation X.  Many also say that it is the event that most affected us.

To stand above this stone on a California overcast day while reading the words between the cracks brought me several tears.  A weathered plack mounted on a large rock reflects three decades of facing a usually blue sky.  

"These redwoods grew from the sees of El Palo Alto that orbited Earth on board the Space Shuttle Challenger STS-51F July 29th - August 6, 1985.  On a later mission, Challenger and the lives of seven astronauts were lost in an explosion on January 28, 1986."

Redwoods can live for a thousand years or more - I wonder if the story of these trees will.  I hope so.


(c) 2016 by Chloe Koffas - all rights reserved.
NASA photos: public domain, writing and other photography by Chloe Koffas, words in quotes from the poem, High Flight by John Gillepie Magee Jr. 

Link to lyrics: Life in a Northern Town
Link to poetry: High Flight