"My Dad Was the Pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger"


Twenty five years ago today, I was a gangly 14 year old 8th grader at Kleb Middle School in Spring, Texas. At 11:39 a.m., I was standing in the lunchroom with my friends eating greasy french fries, rectangular pizza, and drinking Mr. Pibb. My best friend's birthday had been the day before and we were busy planning a weekend celebration.

A girlfriend walked up to me from another group of kids gathering around one another and told me the Space Shuttle Challenger had exploded just after launch. And that was all we knew. I remember, in my awkwardness, not knowing exactly how to react. We definitely talked a lot about other launches but this one had been even more highly publicized because it carried a civilian. She was a young, beautiful teacher from Concord, New Hampshire who was taking the field trip of a life time.

I can still remember the smell of the cafeteria. The following hours and weeks filling with details including the especially cold weather that morning, the mechanics of the explosion, and the men and women America lost that day.

A year and a half ago, gathered around a kitchen island, our kids counting their loot from trick-or-treating, I remember the smell of taco soup as I got to know a new friend. We started talking about our families and how I'd lost my mom the year Tee was born. She'd lost her dad, too, but much younger than me. When I asked her how, she hesitated for just a second.

"My dad was the pilot of the Space Shuttle Challenger."

Challenger Crew
Crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger: January 28, 1986. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

She went on to tell about that day back in 1986 when she stood in the cold on bleachers in Cape Canaveral, Florida reserved for the immediate families of the astronauts.

She, her brother, and sister saw the explosion but didn't immediately know what had happened or that their father was gone.

How genuinely pained President Reagan was as they sat next to him at the memorial service.

And weeks later, when search teams found the crew cabin, she was told by a family friend and veteran astronaut who had tirelessly searched for the missing astronauts and was present at the recovery, that he held her daddy, how much he loved and admired him, and what a great, great man he was.

I sat mesmerized as my friend told me how loved her family felt by an entire country who had lost 8 shining stars. Letters came in sackfulls from around the world with words of prayer, admiration for her dad, and encouragement.

There are very few events that have occurred in my life where I actually remember so clearly the details of where I was. 9-11 was one, and the loss of the Challenger was another. Twenty five years is a long time but this date is important to remember for all of us.

My friend's daddy would be so proud of her and I'm thankful to know her. She's an amazing woman, wife, and mother. She's incredibly humble, and gracious, and loves the Lord. She has seen His grace and mercy in her life as she has leaned into the One who promises to be the Father to the fatherless.

"We will never forget them, or the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodby and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God'."

-President Ronald Reagan at the memorial service for the Challenger Crew
January 31, 1986

Melissa Hill


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