If you were on the planet on January 28, 1986, you remember the mission to space that ended in disaster and rocked the nation. It doesn’t seem possible, but it was on this day 35 years ago that the space shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after liftoff. I was in Florida day. I saw Challenger explode. I saw that plume of smoke that sent seven astronauts to their deaths.

My aunt was taking me back to the airport in Orlando. She pulled to the side of the road and pointed me in the direction of Cape Canaveral to watch the lift off. From that distance, I couldn't make out much. I just saw the blast of exhaust from the rocket. The plume divided. It looked like a big letter Y in the sky.

I remember Aunt Beverly saying how that launch looked different than the others she had seen. We didn't think much about it. Once we reached the airport, it didn't take long to figure out something was horribly wrong.

The airport was at a standstill. People stood in front of banks of tv sets staring in shock. Others had tears streaming down their faces. The utter silence inside one of the country's largest airports was jarring.

The Challenger explosion was the mission that inspired a nation. We collectively watched as the first civilian astronaut lifted off the launch pad. New Hampshire history teacher Christa McAuliffe. Sending a teacher into space--a person we could all relate to--made the mission seem more personal.

Back at home in Monroe City, my high school science class watched the lift off on live television. Students around the country tuned in for the celebration that ended in tragedy. They saw seven astronauts disintegrate in space. Seven lives and the dreams of school kids up in a puff of smoke. And why? Why? A stupid little O-ring seal. That's all it took to seal the fate of that mission. Click here to learn more about the astronauts who lost their lives that day.

Seeing the explosion for myself was a life-changing experience. I couldn't get those pictures out of my mind. I still see them clearly today, 35 years later.

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