September 2001 | Volume 52, Issue 6
On January 28, 1986, my parents and I boarded Northwest Airlines flight 981 from Minneapolis to Orlando, Florida, where we would begin our Disney World vacation. Toward the end of the trip, as the plane neared Cape Canaveral, the pilot’s voice came over the loudspeaker: “Those of you on the left side of the plane will see the Challenger space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian in space.”
I was 12 years old, and my grade school class had been following McAuliffe in the news. She was a hero to us, and of course, we weren’t alone; from what I could tell, all the children aboard the flight had been seated on the left so that they could witness the spectacle. “If you watch closely,” the pilot continued, “you will see the first phase of the launch. In four minutes, the shuttle will drop its primary boosters.”
Drink carts began their muted clinking at the back of the plane, and a few minutes later the pilot resumed his narrative: “Between the captain and the crew, we’ve seen seven launches here at Cape Canaveral, so keep your eyes peeled, and those of you seated—” The pilot paused, and then we heard him say, quietly, as though he were speaking at some distance from the microphone: “I’ve never seen that before.” A gray puff of smoke appeared in the middle of the Challenger ’s rocket stream. Slowly, two V-shaped fingers of ash began billowing earthward, extending farther and farther into the blue afternoon. Then silence, while the pilot waited for a report from the ground.
There was no further announcement, no explanation, and it wasn’t until after we had landed, when we joined a crowd gathered at an airport television, that we learned we’d had front-row seats at one of the events that changed the world.