Twenty-seven years ago today. These things were so common I had forgotten there was even a launch that day.
Had I not decided to forego the cafeteria for the snack bar, I'd not have seen it. But I went up to the snack bar, got the last available stool at the end of the counter, and waited my turn to order. Cheeseburger, fries, sweet tea. Pretty typical.
The TV was tuned to CNN, showing the activities from Cape Canaveral. Countdown, then launch. Seemed o.k. so far.
Judy asked what I wanted on my cheeseburger. Mayo, ketchup, pickle, lettuce. I turned away from the TV to make that request. When I turned back the picture was all wrong.
You get used to the straight or arcing trail behind the shuttle. That wasn't what CNN was showing. A strange tangle of separate smaller contrails. That wasn't right. And where was the shuttle? Shouldn't it be soaring off towards space?
By this time Judy was shushing the rest of the counter and turning up the volume. Little good that did, since CNN's commentators had not a clue what was going on and, thankfully, were saying little. The intermittent tinny communications from Mission Control were all that was heard, for the most part. Otherwise, mostly blank silence.
Some crowd shots. It becomes apparent that I, sitting in the snack bar on campus several hundred miles from Cape Canaveral, knew more of what had happened than the folks watching live on site. And I didn't really know much of anything.
I think I somehow ate my food, though I really don't remember. I wandered out into the main TV/game room, where some others I know were also watching whatever it was that had happened. The most garrulous, seemingly irreverent people I knew on campus were stone silent. I think one girl was shedding one small tear.
I had class. Music history. Didn't know for sure how many people knew what had happened. The professor knew. All he could do was play some elegaic music. No lecture.
It took a very long time, it seemed, for the basic fact to sink in. The shuttle had exploded. It was there and then it was not there. It was a shuttle and then it was debris. It was a bunch of astronauts and a schoolteacher and then it was a national tragedy.
I do not remember many things that clearly. But that day remains amazingly clear in my memory.