A 'Where were you when day': The Challenger disaster

An unforgettable day for everyone, but especially here in Framingham, Mass.

Christie McAuliffe

The mainstream media has the historic reminiscences covered, so I thought I'd offer my version of what so many are discussing today in their homes and workplaces: where they were shortly before noon on Jan. 28, 1986, the day America lost seven astronauts to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

(Almost all of this is from memory, so I apologize in advance should I botch a detail.)

I was helping to oversee the newsroom at what was then called the Middlesex News (now the MetroWest Daily News) in Framingham, Mass., which is where teacher-in-space Christa McAuliffe lived as a child, attended Marian High School, and graduated from Framingham State College. (It's also where Network World is located.)  

In a statement issued yesterday, McAuliffe's husband, New Hampshire federal judge Steven McAuliffe, took pains to remind everyone that his wife was but one of seven who lost their lives that day and not uniquely deserving of admiration or remembrance: "Christa confidently and joyfully embraced life, no less than her friends and colleagues on Challenger, and no less than the crews of Columbia, Apollo 1, and all of those people who courageously follow their own paths every day."

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But Christa McAuliffe was special here in Framingham and the local newspaper at which I worked treated her story with the fervor of a presidential campaign throughout the lengthy teacher-in-space selection process and NASA training program leading up to the launch. She and her family lived in Concord, N.H. at the time, but her parents still lived in Framingham.

We had sent a reporter to Florida to cover the launch, which for a newspaper of our size was virtually unprecedented.

An afternoon paper, we were well into our press run as noon neared, in part because delaying delivery was practically unthinkable at the time and partly because no one expected the launch to be anything but a routine continuation of this story we'd been covering for years. Tomorrow's edition would feature all the wonderful reporting from our guy in Florida.

Routine or not, as launch time approached, I was in the newsroom with my ear pressed to an AM radio, as the only live television coverage was via CNN and we did not get CNN on the tiny television perched over my desk. (Looking back 25 years later, it's difficult to imagine being so information-deprived anywhere, never mind while sitting in a newsroom.)

I couldn't believe what the radio was telling me. Full television coverage kicked in shortly thereafter and a survey later showed that 85 percent of Americans had heard the news within an hour.

Once the reality set in, we began doing what news people do in such situations. I sketched out a new front page for an "extra" edition that would feature what are now historic images, but seemed then to be taking forever to arrive via wire services. I wrote the obvious headline for the special edition - "SHUTTLE EXPLODES" - that would be the headline in virtually every newspaper in America (the New York Times, being the New York Times, went with "The Shuttle Explodes").

Amid all the shock and frantic scrambling to do our jobs, I also had to run upstairs to the press room to do something I had never done before and would never do again over a 20-year newspaper career: yell "Stop the presses!"

I had always thought that would be exciting to do; it seems exciting in the movies. But as I think about the moment, right here, right now, it's giving me chills ... and not the good kind.

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