Image of J.D. Knight, Creator of Sea and Sky
Where Were You?

On January 28, 1986?

by J.D. Knight, Sea and Sky Webmaster

They say everyone remembers where they were when a great tragedy takes place. The events that unfolded on the morning of January 28, 1986, were certainly no exception. I will never forget the horrible images that filled my eyes that morning.

I was working at Walt Disney World at the time as a monorail driver. I have always been a big fan of the space program, and I was lucky enough to be on my break during the launch. I was sitting in the break room near the monorail station at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom. After hearing some commotion outside, I looked down at my watch and remembered the launch.

Image of Space Shuttle Mission 51-L Launch

I quickly put on my jacket (it was cold even in Orlando that morning) and walked outside to watch the event. It started out as a routine launch, as dozens had before. I watched as the mighty spacecraft rose up into the heavens on its highway of puffy smoke. I remember thinking about Christa McAuliffe at the time. She was one of us. She was the first civilian to go into space. It was a remarkable thought, and I had a tear in my eye. "Go Christa, go!" I thought to myself.

I turned around to look at the reactions of the hundred or so people who were also watching. A monorail had just unloaded, and the guests were standing there, mesmerized at the sight. For most of them, it was probably their first live launch. I saw the looks of wonder and amazement on their faces, and I saw the smiles. I remembered how lucky I was to be able to see this kind of thing on a regular basis. I guess I had taken it for granted.

I turned back around to the trail of smoke, expecting to see the usual solid rocket booster separation. But something was different. It took a few moments for it to sink in. A giant ball of smoke appeared. That's unusual, I thought. Then I saw the solid rocket boosters flying out of the smoke in different directions. At that point I knew something was definitely wrong.

Photo Challenger Accident Explosion

I took off running to the large break room behind Main Street USA. They had a television set in there. I really didn't think it was anything too serious. My thoughts were that there had been a problem and Challenger was probably making an emergency landing. I got to the break room expecting to see the spacecraft landing at the Kennedy Space Center or one of the several alternate landing sites. But as I entered the building, I looked up at the screen and saw Challenger burst into flames. It was engulfed in a massive fireball. The station was replaying the horrible event from just a few moments earlier. My heart sank in my chest as my hand came up over my mouth. I couldn't believe it. Challenger had blown up. The astronauts were gone. Christa was gone. Our space program hopes were gone. She was one of us.

I remember how they played that terrible sight over and over again that day. Every time I walked into a break room or cafeteria, it was there. I remember thinking to myself, "I saw seven people killed today". That thought chilled me to the bone. Needless to say it was a long day at work. When I got home that night, there was almost nothing on television except coverage of what was now termed as the "Challenger disaster". I recorded several of the news specials for historic posterity. I thought that one day in the future, I might want to watch them again. It was some time before I got over this experience. And to this day I will certainly never forget it. I never have watched those tapes.