The space shuttle Challenger exploded on this day, January 28, in 1986. I found this reflection from the following day.

A national tragedy. The first fatal accident involving an American spacecraft in flight, killing all seven people onboard. People compared its impact to the Kennedy assassination. Everyone knows where they were when they heard the news. Feelings nationwide are of an ecumenical loss.

Today, the day after, the stories are of coping. How it happened is far away and, in this regard, immaterial. That it happened is what we all have to deal with.

The media quickly centered on: how are the children taking this tragedy? But the sense here is that adults are more concerned about how they feel than about the way kids are taking it. The more we ask “how do you feel” to the children, the more we question how it is we feel ourselves.

To those who work among the young every day, the message is simple: “at that age, there are fast impressions and equally fast putting it all in the past.” Kids do not think more than of the moment. That is their strength. The past and future don’t count for much in youth. That’s the beauty and innocence of youth. It is adults with the scope of time who have the capacity and inclination to dwell and consider.

We compare the Challenger’s explosion to Kennedy’s assassination because our lives have encompassed both events. But we bring in child psychologists and psychiatrists to talk to kids. Why? Because we are looking for signs of understanding that we feel slipping away in ourselves. And in doing so, we create an atmosphere more dangerous than the explosion of the Challenger.

Little adults are not what kids are supposed to be. The French have a phrase for teenagers, “L’age ingrat“, meaning awkward, thankless age. That is their way.

73 seconds after takeoff

When we were young, in the early 1960s, we sat in our early morning classrooms as TVs from the audio-visual department would be wheeled in. Lights would dim, shades pulled down. And we would watch expectantly as first the Mercury, then the Apollo flights blasted off from Cape Canaveral. We held our breath collectively, believing that at any time this blast-off would turn into what happened with Challenger a full generation after our expectation of it.

But after its long string of successes, and finally the landing on the moon in October 1969, we began taking the space program for granted and out of the classrooms.

Today’s generation grew up with success in space in place, with no TVs on carts, but guns in the classroom. And death everywhere on TV serving as babysitters for the Me-generation parents. We watched the Challenger explosion on TV on videotape; it wasn’t even live. But it is the same way death is delivered every week on The A Team, Hill Street Blues, and the Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. It is becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate the real from the imagined, hence our order of concern for the children.

In 1985, the average American watched television seven hours plus per day, up two minutes from 1984’s consumption, the previous high-water mark. The message has become lost in the electronic delivery system. Each act is followed too closely by station identification and Toyota Savings Days commercials.

We have grown up in a society inundated with death, violence, and neglect, all presented in half-hour block packages. How can it but inure us, anesthetize us to death in real life?

We want this tragedy to mean more because it stemmed from a higher cause. But true feelings spur action. We’ve shared death so many times electronically, then gone beyond to find out what’s on Dynasty at nine, eight Central on most of these ABC stations.

Action in the face of this unending barrage has been deafened by the clicks of millions of remote controls, blinded by the harsh light of the cathode rays, and been replaced by a dull shroud of personal safety as perceived from the living room couch.

The real sights and sounds of death, so remote to the young in America, are all too common in much of the outside world.

The Challenger tragedy and its aftermath only brought out our feelings of a new, perhaps just another, lost generation. We ask “how do you feel”, hoping they can and someday will.


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