Where Were You When The Challenger Exploded?

For those of you not old enough to remember, back in the '80s, when Americans still celebrated space, thousands of people lined up at what was then called the Kennedy Space Station to watch a missile with, among its astronauts, an elementary school teacher, when it mushroomed into a huge explosion taking off and everyone inside died.

I was working at a huge corporation back in those days as a newsletter writer and my editor -- a big burly guy known for never tucking his shirts in, because he couldn't -- came rushing into my office (yes, even the lowest on the totem pole had offices back then), and screamed, "The Challenger blew up!"

I can remember to this day his puffy red face and were those tears, telling me the unthinkable had happened. (Of course, this was before Newtown.)   The spaceship had exploded and scattered in white-hot pieces all over the blazing blue sky, in front of the teacher's proud parents and, I believe, her kids.  

We learned later that some part of the missile had misfired or over-heated, that part I don't remember.  But what I do is the drop I felt in my stomach that something so terrible could happen. 

And that, according to a story in the Sunday New York Times, is why we can recall so well some horrific events in our lives.  They hit us at a gut level.

While we, of course, remember recent news pretty well, "Sometimes we’ll remember the details of far older news stories. Indeed, recent psychological research shows that our memory for news is not as straightforward as we might think — and the reasons offer insight into how the mind works," writes Claudia Hammond. 

Not surprisingly, she adds, your proximity to the story makes you remember it better. "Two years after 9/11, a study by the cognitive psychologist Kathy Pezdek found that New Yorkers recalled more of the details than those living in California and Hawaii," she reports. Obviously.

But what makes this so interesting is that the way you get the information matters, too. Whether you hear the news personally, as I did about the Challenger, or learn it from the news media makes a big difference. "An individual is more likely to convey shock and genuine emotion," Hammond notes, and even though that interaction may not include as much information as a news report, you are far more likely to remember it for a very long time.

I haven't seen Bruce in more than 30 years but if I did, I most likely would remember that day in my office first.


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