Twenty-five years ago today, millions of lives were in changed in an instant when the U.S. space shuttle Challenger disintegrated moments after liftoff. The seven individuals who lost their lives aboard the spacecraft surely paid the heaviest price of all. The subsequent pain and suffering of their families, friends, and colleagues is unimaginable. Christa McAuliffe’s reported comment on the irony of a history teacher making history took on a totally different, and tragic, meaning than the one she had intended.
Disasters like the Challenger’s tend to be defining moments in our lives. Where we were and what we were doing at the moment we saw or heard the news become etched in our brains, seared in our consciousness, and often change our lives in some way. Today we are reminded of this moment and its aftermath as we hear from, and read about, those who have shared their personal stories about their Challenger-related defining moment. Here is mine.
We were sitting in my Director’s office in Memphis late in the morning, huddled around the speaker phone as we talked with our investment bankers in New York about the logistics of a bond issue that FedEx was about to take to market. The proceeds were to be used to fund the company’s new service called ZapMail, which was a sophisticated pre-cursor of today’s fax machines. Suddenly someone ran into the office and, in a shocked voice, announced, “The Challenger just blew up!” We bolted for the conference room, where our co-workers already were gathering in front of the television there. We stared in stunned disbelief as the TV station played the footage of the tragedy over and over and over again. In denial, I hoped that if we watched long enough, we finally would see a replay with a different, happy ending. There was none.
As fellow human beings and as U.S. citizens proud of our country’s space program, we were devastated by the loss of those seven lives and the impact it would have on people, programs, and things we couldn’t even begin to imagine just then. For my manager, the news was even more heartbreaking than for the rest of us: one of the astronauts on board the Challenger, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, had been a fellow student at MIT.
As we tore ourselves away from the riveting scene that played out on a continuous loop on the TV screen, we knew one thing was clear: there would be no bond issue. FedEx had had a satellite on board the Challenger that was critical to the implementation of its new ZapMail service. When the spacecraft disintegrated, so too did our ability to provide this service.
Where were you on that fateful day? How, if at all, was the Challenger disaster a defining moment in your life? Whatever meaning it had for you, I hope that you take a few minutes to reflect on this event, and to resolve to do something to honor the Challenger crew, ensuring that their lives were not lost in vain.
2011 Pat Lynch. All rights reserved.