Columbia tragedy brought back memories of Challenger

Zach Mills

It was Jan. 28, 1986, when the explosion of the Challenger and the untimely deaths of seven brave astronauts mortified America and the world.

Seventeen years and four days later, a similar scene unfolded when a peaceful backdrop of blue sky ignited with fiery yellows, oranges and whites as the space shuttle Columbia exploded over Texas just minutes before landing.

I was seven years old when Challenger exploded. I remember watching the launch in school, and when I got home it was on the news.

My father was sitting in his favorite reclining chair while a news station replayed the explosion.

“Oh, I love this!” I said as I passed the TV. I sat down next to my father to watch the replay of the blue sky lighting up.

My father looked at me in disgust and said, “Zach, you don’t love this. People died!”

I didn’t quite understand that the astronauts in that colorful explosion weren’t coming back.

But I’ve always remembered my father’s stern rebuke.

And now, as a 23-year-old adult, I heard that rebuke in my mind as I watched another magnificent space shuttle with another seven valiant heroes crumble in a blue sky on another calm and peaceful day.

But the similarities in the Challenger and Columbia tragedies are the memories that keep plaguing my mind.

Columbia was just 39 miles and 16 minutes from home. Challenger had been away from home just 73 seconds.

Both shuttles lost seven crew members, and both crews were very diverse in terms of race, gender, geography, background and religion.

Ultimately the cause of both explosions occurred during take-off. Challenger exploded after a leak in one of the solid rocket boosters ignited the external fuel tank. Columbia exploded after a piece of insulating foam hit the left wing of the shuttle and damaged several of the 20,000 thermal tiles that protect the shuttle during reentry.

Although the tragedy of Columbia will forever weigh on our hearts, it has allowed me to travel back to a time when I was young and unlearned. It has allowed me to put myself in my father’s shoes, when his son uttered an unintentionally cruel statement.

I know now how much my dad was hurting when he saw that blue sky light up. And I know now what to tell my unborn children about Feb. 1, 2003.

I’ll tell them an inspiring story about seven members of the human race who bravely gave their lives so that the dream of space exploration could be kept alive for future generations.

I’ll say that our heroes were just 39 miles and 16 minutes from home.

And I’ll make sure I tell my children that even though our heroes lost their lives, all seven of them did, in a sense, make it back home.

Zach Mills is a senior print journalism major from Murfreesboro, Tenn.