I Touch the Future

Yeah, I cried a little when the rocket launched today. When the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifted off, I was sitting 14 inches from my TV, watching the two-man crew blast into orbit. And my eyes got blurry.

I was a child again. Not because I felt excitement and awe, though I had plenty of that. I was feeling a nervous nausea.

The last time I saw a rocket liftoff I was a kid. I was seated in a classroom with 24 of my peers. We were a rowdy group of stinky freckled children whose noses were always running.

Our entire class sat Criss-Cross Applesauce on the carpet, surrounded by woodblocks, Tinkertoys, and picture books.

Miss Jeanne, our teacher, brought a Zenith portable TV to class to watch the Challenger Space Shuttle launch. The television was about the size and weight of a Plymouth Belvedere, only with worse reception.

On the screen, the Challenger astronaut crew was all smiles. We kids applauded when the screen showed an image of Christa McAuliffe, the vibrant New Hampshire school teacher and civilian who had been selected to fly into space via NASA’s “teacher in space” program.

Christa McAuliffe was us. She was an ordinary American, just like our teachers who stood beside the TV set. She even looked like our teachers.

During launch preparations, Miss Jeanne explained everything. Whenever the TV reporter talked technical details, Miss Jeanne translated the big words using hand gestures. She even took questions from her audience.

We came up with some doozies. Our arms shot straight up.

“Yes, Tyler?” said Miss Jeanne. “You have a question?”

Tyler said, “How do the astronauts go NUMBER TWO?”

A rousing round of laughter from the class

“I don’t know, Tyler. Yes, Andrea?”

“Can people breathe in space?”

“That’s a good question, Andrea.”

And so it went. Miss Jeanne would answer every question. And she never broke her reverence for the occasion because this was history. And we were somehow part of it.

Our classroom had the same sacred air you get at a Catholic mass. Or at your cousin’s wedding reception when people are spontaneously offering toasts for upwards of six hours.

Miss Jeanne said that every classroom, and every student in the country was probably watching this same broadcast. This added to the thrill.

It was almost lunchtime. A few kids had to pee. I was sitting next to Katie. She was holding my hand because she was nervous.

I thought holding hands was dumb. But Katie was my friend. Mainly because she was the only other human being I ever met who was allergic to poison ivy and laundry detergents like me. That was our common bond. It doesn’t take much to be best friends when you’re a kid.

Katie squeezed my hand. On the television: the countdown began.

“Twenty, nineteen, eighteen…”

My friend Billy was cradling a Challenger space shuttle model. It was made of plastic. It was the most coveted piece of toy finery in three counties. The mini spaceship had a hatch that opened with actual miniature NASA spacemen. If you gave Billy a nickel, he’d rent the spaceship to you for five minutes. But you had to pay a damage deposit first.

Liftoff was getting closer.

“Fifteen, fourteen, thirteen…”

Have you ever asked kids to countdown in unison? You don’t have to ask them twice. The teacher had to turn up the volume.

“TEN! NINE! EIGHT! SEVEN! SIX…!”

The engines ignited. Thrusters shot flames into the air. And on this particular day, so many years ago, at a little rural school, we cheered like it was D-Day. Miss Jeanne didn’t even try to hush us. In fact, she was cheering, too.

It was exactly 11:38 a.m. when we watched the future soar upward into the blue, shooting thick billows behind its mighty rocket.

Katie was squeezing my hand harder now.

The shuttle was in the air for 73 seconds. By 11:39 a.m., the ship was engulfed in bright flashes of yellow and orange. A huge midair explosion. Smoke followed. Debris spiraled to the earth. And the Challenger had become soot.

No noise was heard in our classroom.

Miss Jeanne covered her mouth. She whispered, “Jesus.”

And what I remember most was the silence that followed. Silence from news reporters, silence from ground control, from our class, and from Miss Jeanne. Billy had dropped his toy. Katie was about to break my hand.

The serious voice on television finally said, “The Challenger has exploded…”

Miss Jeanne was crying. So was her assistant, Miss Angie. Another teacher came into our classroom, her mascara was running.

And that terrible silence.

The rest of our school day was simply a matter of going through the motions. Our teachers fed us a lunch of cold milk and cheese sandwiches. They fielded our sincerest questions.

“Are they dead?” asked Katie.

“What about their kids?” said Tyler.

Our teachers did their best to hold it together, but their eye makeup didn’t stand a chance that day.

A few years ago, I was traveling through Charleston, West Virginia. I had time to kill. So I walked a winding outdoor trail just to see the bronze sculpture of a famous teacher lady holding a space helmet. I bowed my head for a few minutes. The statue’s inscription was in the teacher’s own words:

“I touch the future. I teach.”

So yeah. I cried today.

34 comments

  1. Cathi Russell - May 31, 2020 6:56 am

    Yeah I felt the same way but my fascination with the space program goes back to the 1960s! When the Challenger exploded, I was living in the Washington DC area & was in a meeting that fell apart because a few of us couldn’t stop crying. 🙋‍♀️🙋‍♀️🙋‍♀️ It was an amazing day to come full circle & I’m so proud of our country. USA, USA, USA!!! 🇺🇲🇺🇲🇺🇲

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  2. Cynthia Harmon - May 31, 2020 9:45 am

    Yesterday I was thinking about the summer I sat with my granny and watched an Apollo mission launch to the moon. We were so excited! But regarding the Challenger, I was teaching 2nd grade and we had come to lunch when I saw all the ladies crying. They told me what happened. I was stunned and could hardly teach the rest of the day.

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  3. GaryD - May 31, 2020 10:51 am

    I was at work. I thought, somehow, they would survive. But….😢 It was a very sad day.

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  4. Sara Howland - May 31, 2020 11:02 am

    And now I’m crying. ❤️

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  5. Jean - May 31, 2020 11:24 am

    We all cried then and now again.

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  6. Debbie - May 31, 2020 11:24 am

    Thank you for sharing this story, for reminding us about what happened that day.

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  7. leeboyz86 - May 31, 2020 11:34 am

    Sean, I’m old. So, my memory of the Challenger disaster is different from yours. I was working that morning, concentrating on a report that would be due pretty soon, when a colleague came into my office and and said something like “Have you heard about the space shuttle exploding?”. I hadn’t. Pretty soon everyone in our little office was gathered in stunned silence around a TV that seemed to have magically appeared out of a dusty closet somewhere. None of us could believe what we were hearing from the TV newspeople, but it had actually happened. We saw it, didn’t we? They played it over and over gain. It was agony. There were tears shed in our little group. There were tears shed all over this country. It took a while, but eventually we turned away from the TV. We talked in small groups until we were talked-out. One by one, we found our way back to our desks and went back to our work – distracted though we were. I think we all felt we had lost family that morning. It was hard to take it all in. It was hard for me to concentrate on work, but I had a deadline to meet. So, I kept my head in the work until the evening, when I sat in front of my own TV and watched the tragedy played-out relentlessly, over and over. Those images will be with me forever.

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  8. jonsportraits.com - May 31, 2020 11:53 am

    This made me cry, little brother. Shared it on my FB.

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  9. Dan Wise - May 31, 2020 11:57 am

    I also recall those early days of the quest ultimately succeed in landing our space heroes on the Moon. Our elementary school class also took time-out to view the landing on our B&W TV. Looking back it is a bit fuzzy if we were more excited about viewing the landing or a break in the usual visual study of introductory Spanish lessons!

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  10. Lyla - May 31, 2020 11:59 am

    I was on the PE field with my 6th grade gifted class in Ormand Beach, Florida. Yesterday’s launch brought it all back. The two manned launches I’ve watched have exploded. I’ll never watch another, just the tapes.

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  11. Joyce Bacon - May 31, 2020 12:26 pm

    And I cried reading this……

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  12. Cheryl - May 31, 2020 12:42 pm

    Beautifully written. I remember that image so clearly.

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  13. Denise DeVries - May 31, 2020 12:59 pm

    YOU WERE NOT ALONE.

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  14. Jan - May 31, 2020 1:15 pm

    One of your best ever! Like many, I remember that day clearly. It is one of those moments that you use to mark time. Before Challenger or after Challenger. You captured the importance to both the country and to the little boy and to everyone in between. As I watched the launch yesterday, in the back of my mind I could see that trail of smoke which is so distinctive that marked the tragic end of the Challenger. Gone but not forgotten.

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  15. Connie Ryland - May 31, 2020 1:17 pm

    Yeah. I cried too, reading your words and remembering. I was long out of school with kids of my own that day. I cried then too. Never forgot that day.

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  16. Kelley Hinsley - May 31, 2020 1:50 pm

    You were not by yourself during yesterday’s launch.

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  17. Beth Bryant - May 31, 2020 2:11 pm

    I was living in Jacksonville, Fl, my parents from Alabama were visiting and we driving to Ponte Verde. In the sky we saw a bright light and a trail of smoke, we knew it was the Challenger but did not realize what had happened. The sky was so clear that day and I had never been “that close” to Cape Canaveral, so I didn’t find it odd that I could we see it, I was thrilled!!!! News was not 24/7 then, so we did not find out for a few hours what happened. We were sick and heartbroken. So yesterday was an American Red Letter Day!!! USA!!

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  18. Rebecca E Johnson - May 31, 2020 2:20 pm

    You made it as real as I read this as it was when it happened and I cried as I did then. You are such a great story teller and the first thing I read soon as I get up. Thank you for telling your stories about your life, your wife Jamie, dogs and people you meet. I feel like I know you and you are def my friend 🥰🥰

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  19. Robert M Brenner - May 31, 2020 2:23 pm

    Your last two sentences brought tears to my eyes! God Bless our Teachers…Bob

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  20. Cheryl - May 31, 2020 2:33 pm

    I was in my 30’s on that day. I remember it like it was yesterday.

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  21. MAM - May 31, 2020 3:37 pm

    I was traveling to visit my mother the day of the demise of the Challenger. I was headed to my next flight when I noticed everyone gathered around TV screens. And lots of tears in that airport that day. Mine among them

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  22. Linda Moon - May 31, 2020 4:12 pm

    Most of us readers probably suspected your eyes would blur while you watched the launch. In 1986 my fifth-grade students at Concord were watching the Challenger liftoff and rooting for the teacher. Thank you, Sean, for remembering and telling her story. My eyes blurred as I read her words inscribed on the statue. Bless you, Mrs. McCauliffe……there in the Heavenlies, away from Earth’s surly bonds. You touched all our futures!

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  23. Jane Vaught - May 31, 2020 4:15 pm

    I watched the tv for liftoff too then ran outside to see the spacecraft and what I saw was horrific! I ran back inside in disbelief to find out what I had witnessed and stood with tears … that day is forever in my mind

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  24. Maxine - May 31, 2020 4:51 pm

    I remembered Challenger because I saw it first hand from my office window in Tampa. Stunned is the only word to describe the reaction, no breath would come, then the tears, mine and my co-workers.
    Yesterday, I breathed a sign of relief when they cleared all the preliminary stop-points for possible early trouble.
    And as they soared on through the sky, I thanked God..

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  25. Jeanne Butler - May 31, 2020 5:14 pm

    I cried when that happened. I was at work. And I cried reading this. And the two astronauts yesterday. God bless them. And their epic journey was eclipsed by the violence on Earth. So sad. God bless them and everyone here. Love you Sean

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  26. Beth - May 31, 2020 5:16 pm

    I have to tell you, when I was watching all of the prelaunch stuff on Wednesday and seeing the astronauts sit in the capsule (one of whom I have communicated with through work), all I could think about was the Challenger. I, too, watched it explode live at school, and it was horrible. I was excited for this launch, but definitely was anxious. I couldn’t watch the launch Saturday. I am so thankful it went off without a hitch.

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  27. Dianne - May 31, 2020 6:38 pm

    I cried, too, Sean, because I well remember that day with the Challenger. I had come home for lunch, sat down with my sandwich in front of the TV, watched the liftoff, and then saw the explosion. I began crying, never finished my lunch and called my husband long distance crying. I cried during the launch yesterday, because I was remember the Challenger launch, and I was praying, praying, praying for a good, safe launch. God is good!

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  28. hkathy440 - May 31, 2020 6:44 pm

    I remember that day. I was a new nurse working on the floors, and one of the transporters passed me in the hall and asked if I had heard about it yet, that it had just exploded. Some of the patient tv’s were showing news bulletins showing the trailing smoke. Funny how these moments are frozen in your memory forever. It happened again a few years later. A nurse whose patients I was covering came back from her break and said, have you heard? we just invaded Iraq. It felt like time always stood still for a couple of moments when news like that came along.

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  29. Charlu Kent - May 31, 2020 8:26 pm

    This Mama cried. I was taking my sons to Story time at the library when we heard about it on the radio. I pulled off the road n held my boys n cried. My family are all educators n we cried.💙🐭😢

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  30. Diann - May 31, 2020 8:47 pm

    Me too Sean, me too

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  31. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - June 1, 2020 4:40 am

    I thought of that same launch when I watched this one too. I was already grown then but it was shocking. I am sure school children where devastated.

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  32. Joy T Lane - June 7, 2020 6:17 am

    I was also sitting in a elementary school classroom in Florida. It was a a day I’ll never forget. There was something extra heart breaking about the teacher being on board. Her students and family cheering. Then, shock and heartbreak. They broke the bonds of earth to touch the face of God. It still hurt. I am glad that we are continuing to explore the final frontier.

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  33. Janice C Horton - June 18, 2020 2:05 pm

    I was in the military at the time stationed in Kaiserslautern, Germany. A bunch of us from my unit were on leave ..a ski trip with our families. We sat mesmerized watching and were in total shock as we watched it explode. A very sad day.

    Reply
  34. Phyllis Belanger Mata - July 10, 2020 8:57 pm

    And so did I. I too was terrified watching recently. And from one little columnist from New Iberia, Louisiana to another, thank you for your beautiful, funny, poignant, sentimental and gut-wrenching stories.

    Reply

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