At this very moment 25 years ago, I was glued to a television set at my job as a filmstrip writer/producer in Chicago, watching with excitement as civilian teacher, Christa McAuliffe, and the first Jewish woman astronaut, Judith Resnik, were about to be catapulted in space along with the rest of the Challenger’s flight crew: commander Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, and Gregory Jarvis. Back then every Shuttle launch was still big news but because of my interest in Christa and Judy, I had been obsessively following this mission from its earliest planning stages.
The day before, on January 27, I watched McAuliffe’s husband Steven on “The Today Show,” talking about how excited he was for Christa. Their children, nine-year-old Scott and six-year-old Caroline, seemed thrilled that their mom was making such an important trip and Scott was excited that his entire third-grade grade class had traveled to Florida to watch the launch the following morning.
On January 28th we all stood around the TV set in the conference room to watch the liftoff. It was still unusually cold in Florida but we were relieved that mission control did not stop the launch, as they had already done several times. My heart was racing as the Challenger rose from its perch at 9:38 Chicago time. The cameras kept cutting away to McAuliffe’s mother and sister who were there watching the liftoff and live shots from Christa’s classroom in Concord, New Hampshire. It was a beautiful launch, the Challenger rising in a straight line at Cape Canaveral and beginning to arch over the Florida sky. Everything was picture perfect as we heard the commander of the Challenger say these last words to mission control: "Roger, go at throttle up."
At first I didn’t think anything of the strange double formations that formed around the shuttle’s trail which was being closely followed by the cameras. It took me and the millions of people watching the Challenger several minutes to realize that some kind of major catastrophe had just occurred. It never even crossed my mind that anything could happen to the crew of the Space Shuttle. Hadn’t NASA proven itself over and over again, even when potentially catastrophic situations emerged during some of its earlier missions? The only casualties of the space program to date had been the three Apollo 1 astronauts who were killed by a fire on a launchpad in 1967.
When it was announced that the Challenger had exploded 73 seconds after takeoff, I was unable to move, I stayed frozen in place. It took my brain several minutes to catch up with what my eyes were seeing and my ears were hearing. At first in the confusion I remember close-ups of the stunned and then grief-stricken faces of McAuliffe’s mother and sister. Thank God that there was still a level of human decency among news producers back then because when it became clear what was going on, there were no more images of the astronauts’ families or the horrified students at McAuliffe’s school. I stayed in that room for hours, unable to tear myself away from the TV coverage. I kept hoping against hope that the cabin containing the astronauts had somehow survived the explosion and that they would be found alive off the Florida coast. As it turned out, the crew cabin did survive the initial breakup of the shuttle, but the astronauts were all killed, probably in the first few seconds after the disaster which we later learned was caused by a faulty O-ring in the rocket booster that had contracted in the still frigid temperatures of that January morning.
I can’t remember a public event that affected me so viscerally before or since, with the possible exception of my very first memory—the assassination of John F. Kennedy when I was four years old. That night, in a national address, President Reagan expertly delivered the famous words that speechwriter Peggy Noonan had borrowed from a World War II-era sonnet. Despite all my cynicism about Reagan’s policies and political views, I believed his sincerity and emotion when he said: “We will never forget them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”
I’ve written about the Challenger disaster twice on this blog, but I couldn’t let this anniversary pass without mentioning it again. It’s hard to believe that young Christa McAuliffe would be 62 years old today, her children now almost the age that she was when she so happily boarded that shuttle so many years ago. McAuliffe’s son is now a marine biologist, her daughter a teacher just like her. 21 years after the disaster, McAuliffe’s good friend and back-up in the Teacher in Space program, Barbara Morgan, finally made it into space aboard the Endeavor, the shuttle that replaced the Challenger.
Judy Resnik would be 61 years old today. She hated being referred to as the “first Jewish astronaut” but that’s how every Jewish family in America knew her. While Soviet cosmonaut Boris Volynov was the first Jew in space (he flew two Soyuz missions in the late 60s), Ohio-born Resnik was the first American Jew to leave the Earth’s atmosphere—as long as you don’t count William Shatner or Leonard Nimoy! Ironically, it was Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura herself, actress Nichelle Nichols, who first recruited Judy into the space program in the late 1970s. At that time, there were only white male astronauts but, under pressure from women’s groups and affirmative action campaigns, NASA had finally decided to recruit women and minorities who had “the Right Stuff.”
Out of over 1,000 women who applied to be part of the space program, Resnik was shocked when she became one of the six women who were selected. Sally Ride, a native of southern California, became the first American woman to travel into space on June 18, 1983, on one of Challenger's first missions. The following year, Judy Resnik became the second woman in space on the maiden voyage of the Discovery orbiter, logging in 144 hours and 57 minutes outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. Resnik and Sally Ride had both worked on the development of the robotic arm that Judy operated on Discovery.
By all accounts, the woman who was the only girl in her high school class to get a perfect score on her SATs was a serious but fun-loving astronaut, an incredibly hard worker, and a loyal friend. What I remember most about her first mission is how her huge mane of hair reacted to the weightless environment inside the shuttle. The other astronauts had great respect for Resnik, even the ones who said that they had some reservations about women joining the space program. “Judy Resnik and the other women at NASA really opened my eyes,” one of the older guard astronauts admitted. “They had dreams and ambitions and were just as good as any male astronaut. Judy was certainly an example of a woman who was very competent. I trusted her with my life and would do it again if she were here.” Judy recognized the inherent dangers in space travel but insisted that the risks were well worth the gains. “I think something is only dangerous if you are not prepared for it,” Resnik said after her first mission, “or if you don't have control over it, or if you can't think through how to get yourself out of the problem.”
Peggy Gawiser Shecket was a childhood friend of Judy’s who was invited to Florida in January 1986 to watch the launch of Judy’s second mission in space as part of the Challenger crew.
I had never seen a launch in person and didn’t suspect a problem as I took continual photos. There was a frightening pause in the audio commentary, however, before we heard that there was a “malfunction.” My husband knew. It would take me much longer to get it. It is a bizarre feeling to plunge from the jubilation at count-down and launch to intense worry. In shock, I fell silent. Immediately we left for the airport. Riding backward, I looked at the continually falling debris, certain that one of the specks was the crew cabin, falling gently suspended by parachutes to bob on the water until rescue people arrived.
On the plane, I sat next to a photojournalist who was creating a book on the shuttle. He told me, clearly, that there was no way the crew could have survived. Shocked enough to not speak to my children, I arrived home. That evening friends and relatives called. I said I could not talk and hung up. Finally at the boys’ bedtime, I was able to tell the 3- and 6-year-olds that we had seen a very bad accident. The next day the rabbi called to express his sympathy and concern. When the rabbi calls to say he is sorry, the person has really died. Quiet shock turned to sobs.
The boys and I began to have nightmares. In theirs, there were explosions and fire. In some of mine, Judy was well, living in Europe; she revealed that the whole thing had been a joke. My son asked me how to make the dreams stop. I told him we would have the dreams until we didn’t need to have them anymore. And eventually, we didn’t. Right before Judy’s funeral was to begin, the temple shook with an earthquake. I pictured telling Judy that I had truly “felt the earth move,” and we would have giggled. Time passes. Life has changed. I imagine that if the flight had gone as planned, Judy and I would have peaceful, easy times to share at this stage of our lives. I think we’d exchange frequent e-mail and I’d send digital photos of my wonderful adult sons. Perhaps we’d still share secrets. I would tell her what a wonderful role model and pioneer she has been for our young women and thank her for including me in her life, adding excitement to mine. I miss her still.
After writing about Resnik on this blog, I got an email from Peggy thanking me for remembering her friend. A series of emails followed, and we got to know each other. When my twin sons were born four months early in April 2009, Peggy was one of the very first people I heard from. She comforted me when Oliver died and closely followed Charlie’s progress from Day 1 to today. Having her own experience in the NICU, she gave excellent advice and support throughout those difficult months. I’m happy to call her a friend and can’t help but reflect on how astronaut Judy Resnik, who died far too young but is still impacting others, made that friendship possible.
Thank you, Judy.