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Health

Gen Xers wonder how the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy would be handled by adults today

As children we watched a teacher and six astronauts explode on live TV, then went right back to class.

NASA/Public Domain

The Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986.

For the baby boomer generation, the question "Where were you when JFK was shot?" evokes a core memory. For Gen Xers, it's "Where were you when the Challenger exploded?" Nearly four decades later, most of us can still recall where we were when the tragic mission went terribly wrong.

Most of us were in classrooms. The space shuttle mission had been hyped in schools across the country for months, as high school teacher Christa McAuliffe had been chosen from 11,000 applicants to become the first civilian in space. McAuliffe had done countless interviews and been part of news and television specials showing how she was being trained for the mission, and by the time of the launch, she'd become a household name.

the seven astronauts on the crew of the space shuttle challengerSeven astronauts, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed in the Challenger explosion. NASA/Public Domain

On January 28, 1986, millions of children across the country were eagerly watching the live TV feed in their classrooms when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded mid-air, just 73 seconds after liftoff. Confusion followed by shock and horror set in as we realized that we'd just watched seven people die in real time—six astronauts, who held almost god-like status for kids in the 1980s, and a woman who could have been any of our favorite teachers.


I was in 5th grade. My teacher cried. Then she turned off the television and we just…went back to class.

Gen X is sometimes referred to as the forgotten generation—the latchkey kids raised by two working parents who learned to be independent as well as cynical and aloof due to benign neglect. But as a social media meme points out, the Challenger tragedy and aftermath serves as an example of why we are the way we are.

The meme shared by Gen X Only on Facebook reads, "If you ever wonder why Gen X is the way it is, remember that teachers hyped a rocket launch and astronauts that then exploded in front of us. No counseling, no hugs or reassurances. They just assigned more homework. And this is just a sample."

middle aged woman's face with text overlay

This explains some things about Gen X.

GenX Only | Facebook

Gen Xers in the comments then shared their memories of that day, and they do make one wonder how differently schools would respond if the same thing happened today. Mental health wasn't a big focus in schools in the 80s, and the idea that kids were traumatized by what they saw and might need some help processing it barely seemed like a blip on the radar.

"Saw it in my 4th grade class with my favorite teacher Ms.waters , I just remember my teacher crying and walking out of the classroom .I was super confused I remember that, I know what we just watched wasn't normal! and we went on with our day literally, no mention of it I don't remember at home or anything." – Stacey R.

"Yep, saw it live, then they turned off tv and went on with class. Not sure what the guidance counselors did in those days??!!" – Kim M.

"I'll never forget this.I was in Spanish class, watching.When it exploded, there was gasps and silent confusion....Silence for what felt like forever. Spanish teacher broke from her rule of Spanish only in class. She looked at us with tears rolling down her face and said, "I can't believe that just happened.....(turns off TV, wipes tears) please pull out your book and turn to page (whatever it was)".And that was that." – Kelli L.

"It was traumatic! The TV gets rolled in on its cart. We learn all about the average person on the flight, a teacher, I mean how cool you can be a teacher and go to space. Classroom is all a buzz as we count down with the TV 3, 2, 1! Then wham giant explosion, wait, hold up, did everyone just die? Everyone, even the teacher is in total shock, the TV is still on as we hear them say the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, and there are no survivors. We all just sat in shock. I don't think it sank in for some of the kids what we had just witnessed. For those of us that understood it was a very strange day, a very strange few days. NOBODY talked about what we had witnessed. We just went through the motions of school, without any help to process it. We never watched any shuttle take off after that, and we used to watch all of them. When the TV got rolled in there wasn’t as much excitement as usual for the rest of the school year. And we all just moved on, because we didn't know what else to do, the adults just acted like it didn't happen." – Lori G.

"I was in 3rd grade...I remember watching it in class after spending all week doing special projects because an 'average' person who was a teacher was gonna get to go to space...it blew up and we thought there was a fireworks show because of how special this launch was hyped to be...And then we went about our day.." – David K.

Millennials had 9/11 as kids. Gen Z has seen school shooting after school shooting. Both Gen Z and Gen Alpha had the COVID pandemic onset as a core childhood memory.

But those younger generations have grown up with much more sensitivity and adult awareness when it comes to mental health issues. Teachers have more training in trauma and there's a better understanding that kids could be affected emotionally by witnessing something like the Challenger disaster. Some schools and classes held remembrances and memorials for the Challenger crew, planting trees in their honor and whatnot, which may have helped bring some closure to the event for some. But for many Gen X kids, all we remember was the horror of it happening and then a complete lack of any kind of processing of it—just a near-immediate moving on.

Was the unspoken "Life is tough, move on" message we received through that experience helpful or harmful to Gen Xers' development? Who knows. There's a fine line between traumatizing and toughening, and that line is likely different for each person. But it's interesting to think about how differently that event might be handled today with our greater grasp of how trauma works and knowing how weird it was to have so little acknowledgment of it at the time.

NASA Goddard/Youtube

Pictured is Black hole TON 618, which contains more than 60 billion solar masses.

It’s almost impossible to really comprehend just how tiny the whole of humanity is against the enormously vast universe. But every so often, thanks to folks at NASA, we get jaw-dropping, awe-inspired video proof of it.

On May 3, NASA released an animated video to YouTube highlighting ten known supermassive black holes scattered throughout the cosmos, comparing their various sizes to familiar celestial bodies in our own solar system.

Noting the utter enormity of these fascinating objects, NASA wrote, “These monsters lurk in the centers of most big galaxies, including our own Milky Way, and contain between 100,000 and tens of billions of times more mass than our Sun.”


In just under 90 seconds, we take a journey through space with these galactic behemoths, starting with a black hole named J1601+3113, containing the mass of 100,000 suns, and ending with TON 618, which contains more than 60 billion solar masses.

Behold:

Awestruck? Terrified? A bit of both? You’re not alone. That was the general consensus in the comments section.

“Just swallowed my brain.”

“We are nothing in this universe but we still have so much ego to be proud of and fight for material things....”

“Mind-blowing.”

“Chills. Bravo!”

“Nobody knows anything anymore.....We're literally ants.”

“Mind blown overwhelmed and scary.”

Everyone might have a general concept of what a black hole is, but in many ways these phenomena remain a mystery. Catching real glimpses of their actual power is a rare, profound and often humbling experience. Same could probably be said of most space matters.

It can be so easy to get caught up in the constant dilemmas in our own world (out of necessity, much of the time). Sometimes all it takes is a larger view to infuse a little more awe back into our lives.

Education

You may not know Gladys West, but her calculations revolutionized navigation.

She couldn't have imagined how much her calculations would affect the world.

US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Gladys West is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, 2018.

This article originally appeared on 02.08.18


If you've never driven your car into a lake, thank Gladys West.

She is one of the mathematicians responsible for developing the global positioning system, better known as GPS.

Like many of the black women responsible for American achievements in math and science, West isn't exactly a household name. But after she mentioned her contribution in a biography she wrote for a sorority function, her community turned their attention to this local "hidden figure."


West was one of only four black employees at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956.

She accepted a position at the Dahlgren, Virginia, facility doing calculations, with her early work focusing on satellites. West also programmed early computers and examined the information that determined the precise location and elevation of satellites in space. Her data collection and calculations would ultimately aid in the development of GPS.

Employe testing the circuits on a super computer 1950s.

U.S. Census Bureau employees/Wikimedia Commons.

West and her colleagues back then probably could not have speculated just how much their calculations would affect the world.

Pretty much every "smart" device — from cellphones to fridges to dog collars — has GPS capabilities these days. The technology has changed the way we play, work, navigate, and explore our communities.

"When you're working every day, you're not thinking, 'What impact is this going to have on the world?' You're thinking, 'I've got to get this right,'" West once said in an interview with The Associated Press.

GPS, technology, community, inventors

GPS has intrigated into many of the devices we use today.

Photo by Psk Slayer on Unsplash

West would continue her work until her retirement in 1998.

After more than 40 years of calculations and complex data analysis, West retired. And following a well-earned vacation with her husband, she suffered a major stroke. But during her recovery, she worked toward returning to school and earned a doctorate. Her go-forward determination led to her regain most of her mobility, and she even survived heart surgery and cancer years later.

While she may not be as well known as other women in STEM fields, West's contribution is undeniable.

At 87, West is working on her memoir and spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren. And according to her oldest daughter, West — despite the advent of GPS — still likes to have a paper map on hand.

Who are we to argue with greatness?

Joy

'Moon bloopers' from NASA is the space footage we didn't know we needed

Apparently, walking on the moon is harder than it looks.

Astronauts falling on the moon is some stellar entertainment.

When Neil Armstrong became the first human to set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, the story of life on Earth was dramatically and forever changed. No longer were we bound to the land on our own planet. We had set foot on another orb in space, broken a new frontier, literally going where no man had gone before.

The words, "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind," spoke to the technological advances that had catapulted the human race from the first sustained, powered human flight to landing a man on the moon in less than 70 years. It was truly an incredible feat.

That "one small step," that people around the world watched on their television sets was seriously momentous. But the steps the world didn't see were genuinely hilarious.


NASA has footage of astronauts trying to walk around on the moon's low gravity, zero atmosphere surface, and apparently, it's a lot harder than it looks. The graceful bouncing of astronauts we've seen in moon landing films belies how easy it was to fall and trip. And once you fall down in a huge space suit in gravity conditions your body isn't used to, it's not so easy to get back up again.

Universal Curiosity shared a montage of "moon bloopers," if you will, sped up 2x for optimal comedic effect. Watch these brilliant space scientists stumble Three Stooges-style as they make their way around the moon:

Eight of the 12 astronauts who have walked on the moon shared recollections of their time on the moon with Forbes in 2019. Nearly across the board, they talked about having a keen understanding of the historic nature of their moon missions, but also being totally focused on the checklists of what they needed to do while they were there. Each Apollo moon mission was limited by time, so there wasn't a lot of opportunity to just goof around.

Some astronaut falls were accidental, including one that nearly cost astronaut Charlie Duke his life during the Apollo 16 mission. While jumping up and down on the moon to see how high he could go—not part of the mission—Duke lost his balance and fell backward onto his fiberglass shell backpack. Thankfully, it didn't crack, but it was a deadly possibility that would have left him without life support and victim to the vacuum of space.

Other falls were planned experiments to see how the conditions on the moon affected human locomotion, providing valuable information for scientists. Still hilarious to watch, though.

This Dark5 documentary segment shares more details about why walking on the moon is such a challenge and the actually quite serious stories behind some of these falls: