I could hear the phone ringing in the kitchen before I turned my key inside the back door lock. I had heard the news already during lunchtime at Little Flower Catholic School that day. My eighth grade science teacher, Mrs. Frey, was crying because she had actually applied for the program and was devastated by the outcome. My friends were stunned as if such a thing could not have happened. Someone wheeled in the television we kept on the library AV cart and we watched in horror replay after replay of what occurred just after liftoff on January 28, 1986.
“Yeah, hello?” I said breathlessly, after dropping my book bag on the floor and diving for the receiver.
To this day, I don’t know why I bothered with the standard telephone greeting. Every molecule in my body knew who was on the other end of the line. Though we were still a decade away from Caller ID, I could have addressed him by name. He had a connection to NASA that was encoded in his DNA. He was an armchair astronaut who followed the Mercury and Gemini missions like a groupie. He built a model of the Apollo 11 rocket and gantry that was easily three foot tall. He had a map of the moon framed neatly on the basement wall and more books on the space program than anyone could possibly need.
Just five years before, he had taken the day off from work to watch the first Space Shuttle rise to the final frontier from its launch pad at Cape Kennedy. He had carried a small boxy TV into work in order to bear witness to several subsequent missions. He helped me build a model of it (complete with extendable space lab) but now…the unthinkable had occurred and it was killing him to be cut off from his connection. He knew what time I would be home and he would have let the phone ring until I picked up.
“Is it true?” He asked.
After being strong for three long hours, my voice broke. “Dad, something happened at NASA…”
“Turn on the TV.” He commanded.
I put the phone down and went into the living room to warm up the set. This was back in the days when cable was limited to 41 channels, the folks at CNN didn’t blather on about nothing and it actually took a minute for the screen to come up. All of the major networks were covering the tragedy.
“OK, I have it on,” I reported.
Over the next several minutes, I tried to relay what the geniuses in charge down in Florida or Houston – I’m not sure which – had to say. But my father wasn’t content to hear me paraphrase a press conference. He had me extend the rather long curly cue phone cord to the TV set (about 10 feet, mind you and as far as it could go) and hold the receiver up to the speaker so he could take in the words first hand.
“Are they sure?” My dad asked after hearing someone say there were no survivors.
He hadn’t seen the footage yet, so there was no way he could understand the improbability of such a miracle. Still, I was amazed at the way he held out hope. Even at the age of 13, I grasped the idea that this would be the “Where were you when?” moment of my young life. It was the beginning of the end of my innocence. It would be the last time I would be sure about anything.
“Dad, there’s just no way,” I explained. “It just kind of…blew up….and broke apart.”
After our conversation, we never really talked about the Challenger. He was glued to the news for the rest of the night (a habit I must have inherited from him, because I tend to do the same thing whenever something big occurs) but I always knew how deeply it affected him.
Eleven years later, after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, we were watching the movie Apollo 13 with Tom Hanks. As I stared in amazement at the way NASA pulled off a moment of triumph in what could have been their biggest failure, my father turned to me and said, “That’s why I wasn’t sure. I thought NASA could do anything.”
There was no explanation for his statement, no context, and it was never mentioned again, but I knew what he meant. It was an unspoken understanding that transcended time and space. Even today, when I see images of the crew or wreckage, I break into tears. Not only because of the incident itself, but because it is a moment I shared with the man I loved more than anything else in this world. Whenever I revisit that moment that is now three decades old, I become that 13-year-old standing in a living room trying to make sense of a “major malfunction” to her father in which seven people “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”