Dear Christa McAuliffe,
We missed your takeoff in real-time, my sixth-grade classmates and I.
It took our teacher longer than usual to get us settled down that January morning. Was that the day Andrew was caught peeing through the chain link fence on a dare?
By the time she turned on the huge, borrowed television you were already gone. We stared at the popcorn-shaped cloud with three fire-tipped antennae of white smoke spiraling lazily out and down against a backdrop of unrelenting blue. Which part of the cloud were you?
The TV voices buzzed with concern, but they hadn’t yet learned to repeat the most dramatic few seconds of a catastrophe on a loop. They, like us, couldn’t quite register what they were seeing. Maybe the pieces of cloud would reassemble themselves into a shuttle if we kept watching?
“Obviously a major malfunction,” a male voice announced cautiously as the onlookers on the ground squinted up in confusion.
In the replays, the shuttle appeared so small in the moments before, it was hard to imagine a person, a whole crew of seven people dressed in helmeted spacesuits tucked inside. Each suit held a pair of arms and legs, hands and feet, fingernails, teeth and strands of hair and eyes, and perfect, tiny rows of eyelashes. Even harder to imagine were the non-corporeal parts, your optimism, your hopes, tethered to the rest of you, hurtling down in that capsule, unseen by the cameras still pointed up.
Jeremy and I skipped off to our violin lesson, crackling with endorphins. There is something undeniably thrilling about being the first to deliver shocking news.
“The Challenger exploded!” we chirped, dizzy with self-importance, but Mrs. Bacon shook her head.
“You should never joke about something like that!” she said.
Dear Christa, we turned your death into schoolyard jokes so quickly it was as if they were already fully formed, waiting to spring to life at the moment of your death. We even used your name, but I swear it wasn’t personal.
What were Christa McAuliffe’s last words?
“What does this button do?”
We were making sense of it, crafting a narrative. You were why we’d tuned in to the launch so we made you the reason it came down. We didn’t know the names Dick Scobee, Ellison Onizuka or Judy Resnick; we knew only you, the teacher: the normal person with the warm smile of our favorite lunch lady and the same perm as our mom. We’d watched you playing leapfrog in the zero gravity of the “vomit comet”, you were ours to admire and ours to mock in death. It didn’t hurt that you were a woman.
What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes?
Blue: One blew this way, one blew that way.
In countless witness and survivor stories you’ll find a preoccupation with the blueness of the sky. From a cloudless blue-sky morning in Hiroshima to a blue-sky Dallas afternoon, from the ice-blue sky at Cape Canaveral to four hijacked planes plowing into a field, a government building, two tall towers of industry, all anyone seems able to recall of the before was the incredible adjective-defying blue sky.
Those of us prone to anxiety will work backward from any catastrophe to find the moment we can blame ourselves, the moment we should have recognized the signs of imminent disaster. And the sky, that sly huckster with its perfect cloudless vista, refused to foreshadow your death, tricked us into abandoning our vigilance. And how easily sold, how ready to believe in the promised magic act we always are. Any sky that blue ought to come with a warning label.
Then there was the name of your craft: Challenger. But what (or whom) were you challenging, exactly? Natural law? God? The status quo?
Were you Icarus? Prometheus? You were proud to be the first civilian to travel to space, the first of many, you promised. The technician who sealed you into the capsule offered you an apple, for the teacher, unbelievably corny but sweet. Were you Eve?
What does NASA stand for?
Needed: Another Seven Astronauts
The nightly news kept showing you all waving as you marched to the doomed launch in your baby blue flight suits, joking with the ground crew as they made their final preparations. It was like watching ghosts, I thought with a queasy flicker of excitement. You didn’t know you were going to die, but we knew you were dead and there was no way to warn you. All we could do was watch.
Decades later, when I was close to the age you were then, I learned that the explosion itself probably didn’t kill you, that you may have remained conscious for some or all of the two minutes and forty-five seconds you hurtled down to that final impact with the sea. I hope you lost consciousness, but I can’t help but wonder.
The sunny optimism of your mission, a Republican president investing in a symbol of scientific exploration, the choice to send a social studies teacher who’d designed a class called “The American Woman” into space, feels almost unbearably quaint today. These days we’re sneaking religion into science curriculum for “balance”, arming schoolteachers with guns. Our choices: Run, Hide, Fight. You gambled your life for the chance to offer us a glimpse of inexplicable wonder. Was it worth it?
Our class wrote messages of condolence as a way to cope with the catastrophe. But what could we, for whom tragedy was a guppy floating belly-up in the classroom tank, possibly say to comfort your children or your parents, who stood in the stands unattended, looking up like lost children themselves as you fell to your death? I can’t recall what I wrote, only that my teacher was so impressed that she read it aloud, encouraged me to actually send it, and that the thought of that made me queasy with shame.
Dear Christa, I’ve been earthbound my whole life and some days all I can feel is fear.
Anne Rasmussen lives and writes in Portland Oregon. She has taught writing in jail, advised graduate students, and constructed giant bear costumes worn by Rockettes. Her stories appear or are forthcoming in Split Lip Magazine, Sundog Lit, and Blood Orange Review. From 2014-2017 she served as editor of Late Night Library’s Late Night Interview column. She sympathizes with unreliable narrators.
(Previous: The Next by Claire Polders)
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Image: NASA Public Domain