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Where Were You When the Challenger Went Down?

January 28, 2011

I’ve just finished reading some thirty postings and series of comments about today’s twenty-fifth anniversary of the tragic Challenger explosion. Most of the comments answer the question: Where were you the morning of January 28, 1986?

Sharing such personal witness stories is a common reaction to a public tragedy. I once heard Alison Landsberg speak about her theory that through film, experiential museums, and historical reenactments, members of a community can “relive” events of which they did not play a part, events perhaps that occurred before they were even born. Landsberg’s well-known theory calls such borrowed memories “prosthetic memories.” With prosthetic memories comes great power to change minds and influence movements, and the great need to share with each other what has happened in our common history.

But with an event such as the Challenger, so many of us did witness it as it happened. Not first-hand, but live on television, in groups, families, offices, classrooms. It’s hard to think of us as eye witnesses, and the vast majority didn’t know the astronauts or their families personally. But when we saw it unfold, we obviously weren’t living past events. The live television broadcast wasn’t really a prosthetic then, was it. Nor was it a direct, personal, immediate experience. Television made it possible for all of us to watch, and the television created the need in us, twenty-five years later, to share where we were during the watching. Maybe instead of a prosthetic, which implies substitution, our Challenger memories are proximate memories, very real, very vivid memories of an event that was witnessed from afar and didn’t impact our lives (at least, of course, for most of us). I don’t immediately love that phrase–proximate memories–but it resonates with me, at least for now.

Regardless, without any memory of the event, without remembering how I reacted then, I know only what I’ve been told: I was in my third grade classroom, my teacher was Mrs. MacLachlan, and my family had recently moved back into our house which we’d had to evacuate some months before because of a disastrous fire. Three facts from my sizable, dispassionate fact file. As I read the passionate and emotional accounts of others who were in grade school at the time, I borrow from them in a Lansbergian prosthetic way, because I, too, feel incredibly sad, incredibly moved, on this anniversary.

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