The Lights of America's Mourning

By Sue Anne Pressley and Cristine Russell
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 30, 1986

In Los Angeles, the flame that burned for the 1984 Olympics was relit for 24 hours. In Houston, motorists drove with their headlights on. In New York, St. Patrick's Cathedral was ablaze with candles. And in Evansville, Ind., a porch light vigil originally intended to celebrate the nation's first teacher in space became a memorial to her.

Across the country, these lights symbolized the nation's mourning for the seven-member crew of the space shuttle Challenger. One day after it roared into the skies and exploded in flames, shock and disbelief gave way to down-to-earth expressions of grief.

For families and friends, the grief was intensely personal -- the loss of an older brother, an only child, a father, a neighbor.

"It's worse today somehow than it was yesterday," said Patrick Smith of Beaufort, N.C., whose older brother, Michael, piloted the space shuttle for 74 seconds before its disastrous end.

For the communities that lost a local hero, it was a day to gather in church, to plan memorials, to pay tribute. Over the public address system at Auburn High in Washington state, two students played taps into hushed classrooms for Challenger commander Francis R. (Dick) Scobee, Class of '57.

For the nation at large, the public tragedy summoned memories of another time, more than two decades ago, when the nation and its schoolchildren unexpectedly learned at midday of a national catastrophe -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A national memorial service for the shuttle crew is set Friday in Houston, site of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center and home to five of the astronauts who died.

"The whole space program has tremendous symbolic meaning," said Brian Flynn of the National Institute of Mental Health. "It involves some of the best talent, the best we can be as human beings. It represents the best of our technology. And it also captures and reconfirms the spirit that founded the country -- new explorations and taking risks to expand our horizons."

Flynn, a psychologist who specializes in working with disaster victims and the cycle of mourning, from shock to acceptance, said the tragedy "takes on an emotional meaning that is more than a comparable number of deaths on a commuter crash. It has much more meaning."

Its impact was magnified, he said, by crew member Christa McAuliffe, a Concord, N.H., high school teacher.

"A teacher on board provides an opportunity for people to identify tremendously with the victims . . . . In some ways, astronauts are seen as different from the rest of us, but here was one of us," Flynn said.

The rest of the crew was a cross-section of America -- a black physicist, a Jewish female engineer, an Asian American and two Vietnam veterans, one of them a small-town southerner. They were Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, Gregory B. Jarvis and Judith A. Resnick.

While people sat transfixed before television sets Tuesday, watching the fiery spectacle over and over in excruciating slow motion, yesterday they began to cope with the event's reality and express their common sentiments in concrete ways.

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© 1986 The Washington Post Company