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.