Of what little I still remember from the morning of January 28, 1986, there is the excitement and the anger. There was the excitement of a 10-year-old NASA nerd growing up in the Space Shuttle era, happy to watch the Challenger launch live with fellow fifth graders—but also, when we witnessed that shuttle turn into a cloud of fire, that same boy reacting not with sadness so much as fury. This wasn’t fair, I thought. This wasn’t how the story was supposed to end.
30 years ago today, the most racially diverse crew NASA has ever assembled launched perhaps its most unique shuttle mission ever. That seven-member crew included a black man, an Asian American man, and two women, one of whom, Christa McAuliffe, was a high school teacher. This launch was a massive story.
Seventy-three seconds after lifting off, the shuttle exploded, sending the astronauts to their death in the Atlantic Ocean. The more horrifying truth of their deaths was obscured by NASA for two years until it was uncovered by the Miami Herald. That story has haunted me, but I was glad that it existed.
The Challenger disaster was the first time I ever saw someone die. But learning the truth about it was instructive, steering me away from my fantasy of being an astronaut and towards storytelling for a living. I was reminded that even though not all stories end happily, they’re still worth telling.