Tuesday, January 30, 2007

21 Years Ago

Back row: Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. Front row: Michael Smith, Francis (Dick) Scobee, Ronald McNair

“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 the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'

Ronald Reagan, address to the nation. January 28, 1986.

Every generation has a “moment”-a moment that is burned into their collective memory forever. If you ask them about it, they will be able to tell you how old they were when it happened, where they were, and what they were doing when they heard the news (or, for younger generations, saw it on television). For my parents’ generation, it was Kennedy’s assassination. For many, many young people, it is September 11th.

While I can remember other major events happening-Princess Diana’s death, and much earlier, watching the first Gulf invasion on CNN, the earliest memory I have of a major event is the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.

That happened 21 years ago on January 28, 1986. I was in second grade. Thankfully, I wasn’t one of the many children who watched it live. I didn’t even know what had happened until I got home. I just remember everyone was upset, and I very clearly remember watching it while standing on the steps. My parents must have been watching the news. The emotion must have really affected me; to this day, I do not like to watch shuttle liftoffs. When we were in Florida on vacation, we went to the observation site to watch the liftoff. I was so glad when it was over. Interestingly, my mother does not feel that way at all (she loves the NASA television channel).

This mission was to be different from other missions; on board was Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian on board and the teacher in the “Teacher in Space” program. McAuliffe was to teach a class from space during her mission.

While we do have several books that discuss the Challenger disaster, as well as a biography of Christa McAuliffe, I decided that the best way to remember this day was to focus on books that reflect the wonder of space and space travel. In the aftermath of the tragedy, family members of those lost established a network of learning centers teaching children about space and space technology. They didn’t want Challenger to always be associated with sadness. June Scobee Rogers wrote in her memoir of her husband, Shuttle Cmdr. Dick Scobee: “The world knew how they died; we wanted the world to know how they lived and for what they were willing to risk their lives. So, you see, we couldn't let them die in vain. Their mission became our mission."

If You Decide to Go to the Moon by Faith McNulty received a lot of attention when it was published in 2005. The first person narrative, neat little facts, and appealing illustrations definitely attract many young readers. Preparations for the journey, liftoff, passing the time, moonwalking, and the return to Earth are explained in an almost poetic fashion. An environmental message is sneaked in without being too transparent or jarring. Granted, it’s not a hardcore factual book about space exploration; the book shows the young astronaut running home to greet his mother after exiting the shuttle. But don’t let that stop you from checking out this book! It touches on homesickness, the sense of wonder an astronaut feels when looking down on Earth, and much more. It also lends itself readily to reading aloud, which many nonfiction space books do not.

Steve Tomecek’s Moon is also written in a “Dear Reader” fashion. Our astronaut guide is a cat, which makes things interesting. The book also slightly delves into the history and mythology of space and astronomy, mostly featuring on Galileo (without the excommunication part). There are quite a few comparisons between the moon and Earth, which children will be able to grasp and understand.

Are you familiar with the DK Eyewitness books? They are fact-filled, well written nonfiction books that cover a dizzying array of topics. They are wonderful for kids who latch on to almanacs and Guinness Book of World Records. Often imitated but rarely duplicated, the DK books somehow do not cross the line between being chockfull of information and overwhelming the reader. DK’s Space Exploration covers the history of space exploration, “astronaut fashion,” astronauts’ leisure time and work in space, space disasters (including the Challenger), and many more topics.

We have books that discuss the Challenger disaster in greater depth:

Disasters in Space Exploration

The Apollo 1 and Challenger Disasters

Websites about Challenger:

NASA has a site with lots of information (for adults).

Ronald Reagan's address to the nation

Biographies of the Challenger crew from the Challenger Center's site

The Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington Park Cemetery

Challenger Seven Memorial Park in Webster, TX

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