Too Soon! I Told the First Challenger Explosion Joke

For a lot of Americans, we share a bond of “Where were you when…?” and fill in the blank for some nation-altering event. Where were you when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed? When you heard JFK was shot? When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar lander? When you first heard 9/11 was happening?

space shuttle challenger

Depending on your age, maybe you weren’t born yet, or not yet cognizant of certain national tragedies and triumphs. At some point in college, I decided I should not date anyone born before the JFK assassination or after the first moon landing, the rationale being: I debuted about halfway between those events, and if we never have anything else in common, at least we both were around (or not around) for those events.

If you are of a certain age, the question is, “Where were you when you heard the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded?” I was a sophomore at the University of Tennessee. Specifically, I was in the entrance lobby of Clement Hall, my dorm, standing near the Ms. Pac-Man game (it was the sit-down version where two players sat opposite each other waiting for their turn.) I ran into my friend Mary, someone I had known since grade school. She asked me if there were any current events that were worthy of mentioning in her journalism class that she was running late for. Someone nearby offered, “Hey, isn’t there a shuttle launch today?”

And here’s where it gets surreal. I, completely unaware of what had actually just happened, jokingly said, “Yeah… and it crashed and blew up!” Mary didn’t believe me, so I urged her to walk around the corner to the TV lounge where a group of students were watching the launch… or rather, they were watching the horrifying aftermath. And my jaw dropped further than it ever had before. Some joke.

I felt a pang of guilt for several hours after, wondering if I had caused the disaster with my flippant remark. I decided that it was way too egotistical of me to assume I had that kind of power, and got over the guilt. In retrospect, it may have been the first joke ever told about the Challenger explosion.

So that’s where I was 31 years ago today. Funny how you remember stuff like that.