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


Anonymous said...

I was in 3rd grade in Mrs. Navarette's class at Eubank elementary school. A welcomed break from mathematics was given by the light from the television. I can't recall many of those cherished breaks but this one is forever etched in my mind. With enthusiasm and wild eyed wonder we stared at our first ever live broadcast of a shuttle launch during class. Must have had something to do with the teacher on board. I remember being thankful for that teacher for all the wrong first. But as I stared on, I recall feeling a sense of pride for her, a woman, a teacher, earning a spot on the shuttle. Then I felt jealousy, if only for a minute. What kid does not dream of making it to space? Jealousy was quickly replaced with excitement, "if she can do it so can I". Christa became an inspiration for a generation in that moment, many of us thinking the prospect of being a shuttle pilot could be a reality. Mere minutes later that all changed. We watched in horror as pieces of the shuttle streaked across the sky. I recall a flower look to the streaks of smoke and debris. Our sense of mortality became all too intrusive. Overpowering our previous feelings of I can do anything. That day became such an emotional roller coaster. One fond memory, at least in hind sight, I remember the entire class bowing our heads and praying for the shuttle crew. God invaded the classroom that day, even if in the midst of tragedy. It's another memory I hold from that moment. Certainly we moved on, but without a small sense of longing for the world to be made right, where death does not swallow us without reason. -J.J.

realrellim said...

This is an interesting perspective, though not one that speaks for an entire generation. The vast majority of Gen Xers were older than you, so we'd already seen our friends' parents or our own get divorced, and we were already letting ourselves in the door after school, watching younger siblings etc. It was a defining moment, but it was one of many defining moments. For example, I remember Reagan getting shot, and that was also a defining moment. I was home from school, watching cartoons, when my mother ran downstairs into the living room and switched the channel on the TV. I was like "hey!" and she said "no, this is important" and shushed anything further I had to say. And then I watched the news footage and we had to have a conversation about what it means if the president gets shot and the fact that it had happened before to other presidents. What I remember most was watching the footage of Jim Brady laying on the ground with his head bleeding into a sewer grate being played repeatedly. I remember thinking "why don't they help that man?" I had no understanding that they would replay video like that.

The Challenger disaster was also wake-up call. I was in sixth grade and had a horrible flu so I hadn't been in school at all that week and I didn’t watch it as it was happening. I was in my room working on schoolwork while my first-grade sister watched the space shuttle launch from my parents' bedroom on TV (she also was sick with said flu). She told us the shuttle blew up. We told her "I'm sure it's just all the smoke and stuff from when it takes off." That happened again, and the third time she insisted it had blown up we got up, came to the TV, saw the smoke trails, and had to apologize profusely for doubting her.

But we (my sister and I) also had the benefit of having that experience with our mother right there, because she was sad too and could help us with that, but also was able to give us a historical perspective. From our 6th and 1st-grade perspectives, it was the FIRST TIME EVER that people had died going to space. She told us that actually, there had been several disasters involving rockets and more, which, while not exactly comforting, helped put things in perspective.

That said, do I think society has dissolved or that the 80s were "the" low point in education? No and no. Context: people have been complaining about the poor quality of education for centuries. I'd consider the low point the point back when K-12 wasn't available to everyone, and especially not people of color or people who couldn't afford to pay the teacher so were told they didn't need any of that. My grandfather was told he needed to go to work to support the family after 8th grade, and my grandmother was told that she'd just "get in trouble" in high school.

As far as parenting goes, I've heard about how parents are self-absorbed for every single day of my oldest child's 11 years. I don't buy it. Yes, extremes are a problem, but we also have no idea where the happy medium between helicopter and selfish is now, other than someone will always be criticizing today’s mothers for being too much of one or the other. I refuse to contribute to that negativity when I also see a ton of good going on in the world.

The adults in 1986 were experiencing this tragedy too and really didn’t know the impact their actions would have that day. They also didn’t have any life experience to pull from. They weren’t watching Kennedy live when he was shot, so how could they draw from their experience to know what to do? It’s not intuitive! I think we owe it to our parents and our teachers to remember that they were human too, and came from a generation that was even less prepared to effectively handle these kinds of tragedies as adults.

ChloeGXP said...

I think it takes me longer than many people to grieve a loss, especially if I sort of file it away in the back of my mind and don't think about it for a long time. Writing this piece actually caused me to move through the final stages of grief - something that I've been needing to do for a long time. While I have written about/told shorter versions of this story, this is the fullness of it that I finally told after 30 years. While my own personal story of January 28, 1986 is important, it is only one puzzle piece of a much bigger picture, because it is an event that transformed history and that transformed a Generation to a large extent. There is a whole other piece I could write about the dangers of "groupthink" and the importance of whistle blowing, because if institutions don't listen to individuals, and don't value individuals, but only value their image, or their budget, or their deadlines, then I'm not sure what the point of institutions are, because their real purpose should be to help people. I have always had a hard time with institutions and the tragedy of this day is mainly why. I have always been a whistle blower, and maybe this day is the reason for that. This day was a tragedy on every level, especially because of the huge amount of emphasis that the event was tied to the future of Generation X. Such a profoundly sad story, such a symbol about the state of society in the mid 1980s, and the kids of that era paid the biggest price of all. Thinking today of the astronauts we lost, and of their families, and most of all of the Generation X children of the astronauts of the Challenger.

ChloeGXP said...

realrellim - thank you for your comment. While everyone in society was affected by the event, I believe Gen X was the most affected, and of the research I've done, it seems it was those about halfway through elementary school who were affected the most of all since we were old enough to understand the significance of this day but still young enough for it to cause powerful emotional damage. So you are right, the scope of this piece doesn't speak for an entire generation, but mainly for those that would be second wave Gen Xers. I agree that it is not the only defining moment and that the attempted Reagan assassination would absolutely be on the top ten to fifteen list of defining moments of the Generation X experience. When I mentioned of the '80s as the low point in education, I was talking about modern education/20th century education which I mentioned in the piece since I also consider the overall low point to have been before the 20th century. As the cycles of history and generations go, an underprotected generation pretty much always overprotects their kids (because we know firsthand what is out there and what we need to protect our kids from) and vice versa - those that were overprotected as kids often become underprotective parents. My heart goes out to the teachers that were in the classrooms on that day as the kids were exposed to the tragedy on TVs from their classrooms. I don't think anyone prepared them for what to do if things were to go wrong, because everyone just expected that things would go well. Now that I'm an adult I can see how difficult it would be do have to be the one to shut the TV off, and to try to think of something to say to my class while trying to keep my own emotions under control. No doubt, it was a tragic day for people of multiple generations, and an especially hard day for those in a classroom setting - both students and teachers.

Anonymous said...

THANK YOU for writing this. I disagree with the comment from the other person about this being a negative story - you are just telling the truth about how this affected people at that time (and how it still does). I wish more people would tell the story of GEneration X and what we have been through since our own story does not get much attention. YES, society, families, and institutions had crumbled to a large extent (generally speaking) by the mid 80s, and you nailed it, because, yes, the disaster of that day was a symbol AND a confirmation that too much had gone wrong.
-Shawn C.

ChloeGXP said...

Shawn - a huge thank you for your comment. I feel it's important to for each generation's story to get told, in part because it is such an important connection to history. Ideally, if we tell our stories, and make ourselves heard, then the things that go wrong are less likely to happen again. I would never want a future generation to go through what Gen X went through as kids. I would hope that we can learn from the growing up years of Gen X and as a society never make those same mistakes again.

ChloeGXP said...

A huge thank you to everyone who has shared this piece across the internet this year through email, social networking, and otherwise. I feel so much gratitude for the huge numbers of people coming to my blog right after this piece was published, and I continue to feel that gratitude as the page hits keep rolling in. I feel like this story connected me to many people - both friends and strangers - in our shared experience of this day as a generation. Thank you so much.