At Western Kentucky University, in the 80s, there were two main places to dine on campus. Downing University Center at the bottom of the hill and Garrett Conference Center at the top of the hill.

WKU offers a LOT more choices in 2021, but not 35 years ago.

All my friends tended to schedule our classes in such a way that most of us would have an hour for lunch in the middle of the day and we'd have it at Garrett.

In that cavernous cafeteria, there was one television, and, oftentimes, the football players were there at the same time, too, and they liked All My Children. The popular soap opera always seemed to be on.

But on January 28th, 1986, ABC and all the other networks were doing live coverage of the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, famously carrying teacher Christa McAuliffe among its crew. The others were Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, and Gregory Jarvis.

A mere 73 seconds after lift-off, the Challenger exploded, showering debris into the Atlantic Ocean. No remains of any of the crew members were ever found. Later, it was determined that the unusually cold weather Florida's Atlantic coast had experienced the previous night had rendered two rubber O-rings less resilient, setting off a chain reaction that led to disaster. has a detailed explanation of exactly why that occurrence became deadly.

The entire Garrett Conference Center cafeteria went quiet, with roughly a hundred or so students and faculty staring at the TVs (they'd wheeled more in after the explosion). I couldn't take my eyes off of it. As much as I could, I followed the story for days after. At Western, I had no cable and there was no Internet, so we did the best that we could.

But later, I came to realize this was the first national disaster of my lifetime. (I began paying attention to the news during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and 1980, but this was different.)

It's become one of those "where were you" moments, like 9/11.

NASA has made January 28th its Day of Remembrance--not just for those who perished in the Challenger disaster, but also for the crew of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which broke up and disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere after a flight in 2003. In fact, the Columbia disaster's 18th anniversary is this Monday, February 1st.

Observances are being held today at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida; at the Johnson Space Center in Houston; and at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunstville, Alabama.

As President Reagan said, in an address that night, these heroic men and women had "slipped the surly bonds of Earth, to touch the face of God."

And we'll never forget them.

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