I shall never forget the day of January 28, 1986. A unique team of astronauts was scheduled to launch into space from the Kennedy Space Center, just north of where St. Mark’s was located and on the north end of Merritt Island where the Epting family now made its home. Launches of the Space Shuttle had not, at that time, become the routine occurrences they were in later years and this one was especially anticipated because one of the astronaut team was a woman named Christa McAuliffe who had been a teacher and special broadcasts were to be made by her from space. Students all over the country were looking forward to following this adventure.
The headmistress of St. Mark’s Episcopal School had decided to send several elementary classes on a field trip to witness this historic occasion since we were so close to KSC and many of the parents and parishioners at St. Mark’s worked at Cape Canaveral and for NASA. It was a fateful decision.
Even though we, as Central Floridians, were completely accustomed to space launches, because our kids were to be on site for this particular one, my secretary Judy McCabe and I had the radio on in the church office so we would know the exact moment of the launch and could step outside and watch the white contrail against the blue sky which was always such a beautiful sight.
As soon as the countdown began, we did indeed go outside with students and faculty who had remained on campus that day onto the playground and gazed across the Indian River to look for the blast-off. Having seen many before, it did not take any of the adults long to realize that something had gone terribly wrong. There was a huge flash and then multiple contrails began spiraling, not upward toward the heavens, but back to earth.
Some thought it was simply the first stage of the rocket that was blasting away. But I instinctively knew differently and Judy and I rushed back in to hear the tragic news that it appeared the Challenger Space Shuttle had blown up before our very eyes. “Maybe they’ll be able to rescue them at sea,” Judy said with tears in her eyes. But I think we both knew that there would be no survivors from that horrific explosion.
The next consideration was how to tell the students, both those who had witnessed the accident with us from the playground and more importantly those classes who had been on site at the space center. We hastily arranged for a school assembly in the church and, when the teachers and students returned we held a brief, kid-appropriate kind of memorial service during which I spoke of how astronauts are heroes and how, throughout the ages, pioneers and explorers have been such heroes who have taken risks to expand our horizons and open up new vistas for the future.
After an early dismissal so that students could be with their families on this terrifying day, the telephone started ringing. These calls were from the press who wanted to know if we were going to have any kind of public service that day to acknowledge the fallen. It dawned on me that it was Tuesday and that we had a regularly scheduled midweek Eucharist at 5:30 p.m. every Tuesday at St. Mark’s. When I acknowledged that fact and said that we would be offering special prayers for the victims and their families, every major television network wanted to send cameras and a film crew.
Initially, I said a firm “No” feeling that numbers of our people might show up at the service since many worked at the Cape and our whole community knew so many people who would have been involved. Finally, a local reporter for ABC news said, “But, Father, so many people are trying to process this! Surely it would be helpful for the wider community to know that at least one church was responding quickly to this tragedy.”
I was actually embarrassed that it took a member of the press to remind me of my Christian duty in this regard and eventually worked out a plan for one stationary camera to be in the back of the church and that no one could be approached, on church property, for impromptu “interviews” which might catch people off guard. I doubt if that deal could be struck today, but in 1986 the press still had some respect for the feelings of grieving human beings and they stuck to the terms of our agreement scrupulously.
Across the country that evening on network news was a tastefully done piece, showing only a visual of me preaching a brief homily, and later administering Holy Communion to a grieving crowd. Emblazoned on my memory to this day was sitting in our small chapel, cradling a young woman who worked at the space center and whose job it had been that day to be among those present with the stunned and grieving families of those astronauts as they awaited confirmation of what they all new to be true – that there would be no survivors of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.
But I was proud of the way St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and School had played a small role in the healing process. It was testimony to just how important a Christian community could be, not only for its own members, but for the wider populace as well.