When she thinks of her big brother, Ellen Leonard remembers the boy who watched planes come swooping over their family farm in Beaufort, who earned his pilot’s license before he could drive a car, who sometimes flew her out to Cape Lookout to see the lighthouse.
She remembers the Navy flier who designed his own house, who jogged and played tennis, who raised three children she stills sees once or twice a year.
But she tries not to dwell on what happened 30 years ago Thursday, when she watched from the ground at Cape Canaveral while her brother, Michael Smith, climbed into the pilot’s seat of the space shuttle Challenger. She witnessed it break apart in midair after 73 seconds, a personal horror played out endlessly on worldwide television.
Anyone alive and aware in 1986 remembers the moment: the trails of smoke in a bright blue sky, the families watching from the bleachers, their faces shifting from excitement to raw grief. For me, the news came via my 10th-grade geometry teacher Mrs. Henry, a relentlessly cheerful person whom I found that day with her eyes cast down, near tears.
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He worked his whole life to get where he was that day. ... You try to remember the good things. You kind of relive that 24 hours or so, and you go on.
Ellen Leonard, whose brother, Michael Smith, was killed in the 1986 Challenger disaster
We mark this day especially because 2016 makes a round number for the Challenger disaster’s anniversary. But Leonard, now 65 and living in Raleigh, feels the pain fresh every year.
“He worked his whole life to get where he was that day,” she said. “That’s a sad thought I have sometimes. You try to remember the good things. You kind of relive that 24 hours or so, and you go on.”
What strikes me most about the three decades since the Challenger disaster is the almost complete lack of interest in the space program. I grew up a child of baby boomers, who experienced Sputnik and John Glenn and the moon landing.
And even though that sense of wonder had dimmed a little once we realized that the moon was for the most part a cold chunk of gray rock, I can still remember me and my middle-school friends crowded inches away from the television when the earliest space shuttles landed in the California desert. My sixth-grade yearbook had Columbia on the cover.
Now, I’m not sure kids pay much attention. My third-grader comes home sometimes talking about the Hubble Space Telescope, and last year, we scanned pictures of Pluto together when New Horizons flew past. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see the same kind of excitement building over anything NASA is up to these days. It is the ultimate irony that a nation whose space program launched in competition with the Soviet Union now depends on Russia to get its astronauts to the International Space Station – a consequence of congressional budget cuts.
I asked Ellen Leonard about this waning space enthusiasm, and she insisted that I not cast a negative light on this anniversary. Still, she lamented, “The shuttle’s gone. That in itself tells you it never lived up to what it was supposed to in terms of it being able to go up so many times without repair. They were talking about it going up 100 times, and there wasn’t any way in heck that was going to happen.”
She added: “It burns me up that we have to rely on the Russians to get up there.”
Leonard said she will spend the day with her two surviving brothers. One of them heard it on the radio all those years ago, which she thinks is worse than her own terrible memory.
“He was my brother,” she said of Michael. “I don’t think of him as an astronaut. I’m glad I was where I was. That’s where I was supposed to be. I told him I’d be there.”