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The Space Shuttle’s 30th Anniversary: Commemorating One of the First Televised Traumas

January 28 is the anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger disaster—an under-acknowledged moment of national trauma.

I remember where I was when I heard the news: a high school ski trip. I was on the ski lift, and it suddenly stopped. An announcement came over the loudspeaker that the shuttle had exploded.

Today, January 28, is the anniversary of the 1986 space shuttle Challenger disaster—an under-acknowledged moment of national trauma, buried under the traumas to come, like an old memorial you pass by in a park.


But the significance of that disaster, especially how it was telecast, bears significance to our current age. In many ways, it introduced our culture to the emotional weight of televised tragedy.

The disaster, of course, remains tragic to the family and loved ones of those who died. One passenger, Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, was going to be the first ordinary citizen in space, having won a national competition. She was set to broadcast lessons from space to students around the country. “The passage of 30 years since the Challenger accident is not of great personal significance to our family,” Mr. McAuliffe, her husband, said in a statement to the Associated Press. “For us, Challenger will always be an event that occurred just recently. Our thoughts and memories of Christa will always be fresh and comforting.” Her husband and two children were watching in Florida, where they were joined by McAulife’s parents and schoolchildren. Schools across the country had turned to the live broadcast.

In his book National Trauma and Collective Memory: Major Events in the American Century Arthur G. Neal considers the disaster to be a shifting moment in national consciousness. “Millions of schoolchildren throughout the nation were traumatized by the experience. They had encountered the reality of death, some for the first time, and were required to deal with it.”

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