Friday, January 28, 2011
Scobee Smith Resnik McNair Onizuka Jarvis McAuliffe
I hadn't planned on writing anything about the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I didn't think I had anything new or interesting to say except that it was one of the big kick-in-the-guts moments of my life. The above picture of Challenger, which I consider a Top-Ten man-in-space photo, still hangs in my office. 'Nuf said. But some other people's remembrances got me thinking about it, and then a couple of hours ago I got a Facebook-friend request from someone I worked with that day who was prodded by the date to look me up 24½ years after we last spoke.
My old co-worker/new Facebook friend and I were reporters at a small newspaper in central California. It was an afternoon paper with a morning deadline (9 o'clock as I recall), and we had just sent that day's issue to press and were heading out the door to work on the next day's stories when the receptionist called out, "Hey, did you hear the space shuttle blew up?" I chuckled that a shuttle was scheduled to go up, and surely she'd heard wrong and gotten confused. But we turned around and went back to the newsroom just in case, and then I don't remember what happened. There was no Internet; we were getting live text dispatches from the Associated Press reporter on the scene. Very brief at first, just a couple of sentences. The reporter was rattled; they weren't well written. Then, gradually, more detail. Early photos. Someone found a TV that stayed on the rest of the day.
I don't think anyone literally yelled "Stop the presses!" but they were nonetheless stopped. We had a paper to deliver in a few hours, very few actual facts to report, and virtually no local angle to cover. Since I had a physics major and wrote a weekly astronomy column for the paper I was the de facto "science guy," and I called some former professors of mine for comment, mostly so we'd have something to print. We filled the top half of the front page with an AP photo, patched together what little we had, and put it to bed. The next day I wrote a first-person column for the editorial page trying to put the disaster in perspective. At the time I thought it was the best thing I'd ever written, although I was also a 25-year-old goober so in retrospect it probably wasn't. I'm afraid to look.
Working frantically at my little desk in a little newsroom for a little newspaper in a little city, I'd witnessed--and helped report--history. One of my great moments in journalism. Big whoop.
I can't believe it's been 25 years, and I still can't watch footage of the explosion without welling up a bit. It was a devastating blow.
That's my Challenger story. Just one of millions.