On the January morning in 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger broke up just 73 seconds into its flight, I was living in New Orleans, trying to figure out what to do with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Tulane University. Dad and my 13 year old stepbrother, Derek, were in Florida watching as special guests at the Johnson Space Center.
Dad described what happened in an article for The New York Times Magazine called "A Lesson in Tragedy":
Ribbons of white smoke like party streamers fell slowly-quite beautifully, really, toward the ocean. Despite the calm voice of launch control we sensed something unsettling had happened, but we didn't know what. A woman in front of Derek suddenly began saying "Oh, no! Oh, no!"
"What's happening?" Derek asked me.
"I don't know, " I said. "Something's gone wrong."
He looked at me, wanting to look back at the sky, but wanting to see my expression when I answered...We were looking at the hole in the sky where Challenger should have been...
Derek standing by a Saturn 5 rocket at the Kennedy Space Center
I left Derek for a moment to retrieve my tape recorder, which I had placed on the ground near one of the speakers. As I hurried back to him I knew that, just as I would never forget the horned, demonic twin reaches of smoke in the sky, I would not forget the image of this boy for whom I care so deeply gallantly standing there waiting for me with his shoulders hunched up to ward off the terrible, deepening chill.
Col. Ellison Onizuka
Dad and Derek were special guests of astronaut Ellison Onizuka. Seven years earlier, after a radio show in San Francisco, Dad struck up a friendship with Onizuka. The astronaut wrote Derek a letter and sent signed photographs.
Out of the blue Dad received an invitation from Onizuka to attend the Challenger launch. Why?
"Because you're a friend" he said. "I thought about you often, and when I flew over Connecticut once, I wondered how you were doing. So when it came time to make up an invitation list, I said 'By God, I'm going to send him one.'"
Of course the disaster was both historic and traumatic for everyone who witnessed the disintegration of the Challenger.
"I guess I realize now those machines aren't foolproof." (Derek) paused for a moment , then added, "But Colonel Onizuka must have know that, too."
Derek and Jonah the cat a month after the Challenger disaster