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1986 Challenger space shuttle explosion shocks the nation PDF Print E-mail
Written by Jes-c Brandt   
While it has been 24 years since the Challenger space shuttle explosion shocked the nation, many locals remember the event like it was yesterday.

It was a Tuesday morning, 9:38 a.m. in Holyoke’s time zone. Liftoff of the United States shuttle had already been delayed three days, and spectators in Cape Canaveral, Fla. anxiously awaited its launch on Jan. 28, 1986. In addition to the thousands present at the launch pad, millions of Americans tuned in to radio and TV programs to witness the start of the historical voyage.

After much anticipation, the craft made its exciting liftoff, and all appeared to be going well. In one short minute, however, it became clear that something had gone terribly wrong. Those watching the event in person or on television saw the shuttle explode into a ball of fire, raining debris over the launch site, only 74 seconds after liftoff.

Many not watching the incident soon heard about the astronauts’ misfortune as word of the tragedy spread quickly, and more people gathered around TV sets and radios to see what had happened. Several local individuals who watched the explosion happen noted they didn’t know what had happened at first. They knew something was wrong, but it took a while for newscasters to relay the severity of the event.

One thing that made this space shuttle unique, and its explosion especially heartbreaking, was passenger Christa McAuliffe. McAuliffe was a teacher from Concord, N.H. who had been chosen as the lucky individual to be the first non-astronaut citizen to travel into space. She was certainly on the minds of many Holyoke teachers who shared her profession in the days following her death.

At Holyoke schools, and in classrooms across the nation, the tragedy hit close to home. Fifth grade teachers at the time, Jim Gribben and Lynn Schneider commented their classes had been learning about the Challenger as a current event. They had spent time discussing the importance of its journey and the possibilities of new things the astronauts would learn and bring back.

Responses were different from person to person, and within Holyoke alone, there is a wide array of memories of that day. Some were alone in an apartment watching on a small television. Others who were in college witnessed the event with their peers in student centers or dorm rooms.

Schneider recalls being with her students, taking in the news alongside them. They talked about what had happened, and what an opportunity Christa had had. There were still not many TVs in the school at that point, so her class listened to the radio for updates.

Gribben noted the Challenger explosion was not as dramatic as some things they had seen, but it still shook up the school. There is a risk in showing kids such events, he said, and some of his students took it rather hard.

Wednesday following the explosion, flags at Holyoke schools flew at half mast, and a moment of silence was held at 9:38 to honor those men and women who lost their lives in the Challenger. Schneider noted they also put up a photo of McAuliffe in the elementary school.

Holyoke Education Association (HEA) arranged a memorial mass for McAuliffe at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on Feb. 8, as she herself was of the Catholic faith. The Association also explored other ways to commemorate their fellow teacher. Likewise, the National Education Association, of which McAuliffe was a member, worked to honor the fallen teacher. A scholarship was arranged to be awarded in McAuliffe’s name.

The effects of the Challenger explosion were far reaching in both location and time. It seems no matter where people were, they heard about the tragedy. HJHS teacher Kevin Asbury noted he was underwater, on a submarine when it happened. They heard via radio communication, but it wasn’t until they resurfaced that he and the other men finally saw the stories and watched the explosion.

To this day, the Challenger is still influencing the nation. When asked about their memories of the explosion, most people still stop, taking a moment to reflect on all that was lost on that day. Even those who were too young to remember the actual event learned about it in school, and McAuliffe’s face is still seen in classrooms here in Holyoke.

For some, the Challenger played a larger role than others. Clark Ginapp shared that his nephew, who was in grade school at the time of the Challenger launch, was so impacted by the event that he went on to a career at Johnson Space Center. It’s hard to tell just how extensive the effect of the explosion is on people today, but it is certainly still an event that lives on in people’s memories.