“The Second Most Important Explosion of 1986”

Austin, TX USA 01/28/86: 10:25 AM (CDT)

Time does seem to pass. The world unfolds not in moments but in frames, images compressed into life. A live broadcast is a collective consciousness, a nationwide longing that pulls us into the future. It’s a school day, and televisions have been rolled into darkened classrooms just for this.

She likes to leave the TV on while she’s in the kitchen, opening cabinets and drawers and running water over vegetables. Space Shuttle Challenger is minutes from its tenth launch. It’s an intimation, or a slight change in frequency that tells her to look over at the screen.

There it sits—stands, vertical—like a child’s toy strapped to a huge metal erection. That’s how it looks to her. Crude. The thing itself is a symbol, a deeply American excess and symmetry. It is a tower. There’s nothing sleek about it. Nothing shines. The external tank is the colour of rust.

Linda Monroe was one of over eleven thousand applicants for NASA’s Teacher in Space Project. She worked hard on her application. Her essay was long and personal. She felt that she was going to be part of it, that somehow it couldn’t happen without her.

Her infant son sleeps in the living room. She wonders when it is that being home with a child will feel less like being home alone. She walks over just to look at him. She wants to see something, a recognition in his skin, something that will tell her who she is.

 

John F. Kennedy Space Center, FL, USA 01/28/86: 11:27 AM (EDT)

Everything happens quicker inside the shuttle. There are sounds of clicking and beeping and things being locked in place.

Christa McAuliffe is grateful for her crewmates. She can relax. She can breathe and take in the complex plastic smells of her suit. It’s all so official, so smooth, the clicks and weapon-like sounds of things being checked and rechecked and engaged.

But there’s a strange emptiness, a peripheral sadness. It’s as though, with everything happening around her, she’s really not part of it at all. And she can’t stop thinking about a cartoonist’s sketch of a monkey in a space suit, floating around against a cratered moon with a chalkboard and apple floating nearby. She understood right away that she was supposed to be the monkey.

She is part of it. Someone said she symbolized the bravery of the American spirit, fearlessly hurtling itself into the future. That was nice. But she hates that this is what’s on her mind now, while the others, the real crew, flip switches and check things and ask her how she’s doing.

 

Austin, TX USA 01/28/86: 10:30 AM (CDT)

She sits down on the chintz sofa with her hands in her lap, existing, far away from where things happen. Something about live TV makes the world small for her—the ability to be there and not there, here and not here.

Linda has become cynical about space since NASA selected the New Hampshire teacher. She finds herself saying that the money could be used to feed starving children or aid developing countries or things like that.

And she doesn’t care to see it take off, but she also doesn’t want to show herself how much she’s trying to not care by changing the channel. She picks up her son, rocks him in her arms, and looks out the living room window.

           

Approximately 35, 000 ft. (and climbing) above John F. Kennedy Space Center, FL, USA 01/28/86: 11:33 AM (EDT)

Christa believes in science and technology and in the rightness of American progress. She is here. The emptiness is gone. There is only excitement.

Mission control says something over the radio that she understands: “Go at throttle up,” and Richard Scobee, the shuttle’s pilot, repeats the phrase back for confirmation. This, she remembers, means they can safely return to full speed without complications in the dynamic pressure zone.

It happens during some fraction of the seventy-third second.

A leak caused by a failed O-ring on the shuttle’s right booster has been melting a hole in the exterior liquid hydrogen tank since take off. Ground footage of this leak will be studied for decades—by NASA, by the CIA, by conspiracy theorists—re-experienced and reimagined, brought to life again and again.

At first it’s only a displacement of air.

No.

This is her last coherent thought, if a thought can be considered coherent before it becomes words, if the silent rejection of the very fact that she will never see her family again can be reduced to the monosyllable, two letters: No.

It’s everything at once, pressure, ripping and pulling, sucked down against the collective will of the people, smashing through their progress, a wave of energy without a hint of direction, a force that hates you without reason.

And then nothing.

 

Austin, TX, USA 01/28/86: 10:34 AM (CDT)

She sits but doesn’t look at the screen. The volume is too low for her to have heard reports of something wrong with the shuttle.

The camera slowly zooms out to capture the creamy-gray cloud—its many limbs of smoke trailing debris, boosters corkscrewing off in opposite directions, wings and other important parts raining down on the Atlantic.

She looks up from the white of her son’s cheek to the messy cloud on the screen and bursts into a laugh that catches her without air in her stomach. She laughs. Her son wakes and begins to cry. She covers her mouth. She knows it’s not funny, but even as the camera pans over the confused and bewildered herd of onlookers—family, friends, and students of the New Hampshire teacher—she can’t help but feel invulnerably alive, as though she personally had been spared a death on live TV, and for some purpose, a plan still in motion, a driving logic that gives her life meaning.

Before long she calms her son and the two of them fall asleep on the sofa, comforted by sunlight coming through a serene sky, catching weightless particles, sparks swirling in the rays, and by mumbling cable voices and the hum of a fan collecting dust and other sounds, here and now.