They slipped the surly bonds of earth… to touch the face of God

Today marks the anniversary of my generation’s “Kennedy moment.”

Every American of my parents generation remembers exactly where they were the moment they heard that John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Every American of my generation remembers where they were on January 28, 1986 — the day of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

I was in the 10th grade, reading in the library at Schalick High. Mr. Pierangeli — who I remember as being quick on his feet and funny — strolled by with a throwaway quip: “I’m sure glad I didn’t get picked to be Teacher in Space.”

Challenger’s breakup killed seven astronauts, including Christa McAuliffe, the first member of NASA’s Teacher in Space project.

I rushed to a television where students and teachers were gathering to watch the footage, which was being played over and over by CNN, a new, 24-hour news network.

That night,  President Ronald Reagan spoke to the nation and showed why he became known as the great communicator. His speech closed with this:

There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said, “He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.” Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and “slipped the surly bonds of earth” to “touch the face of God.”


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