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Anyone alive and sentient 25 years ago to the minute cannot forget this:


Click the image to see Space.com's memorial of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.

Everyone in the world, it seemed, witnessed the disaster live. This was a special launch because Christa McAuliffe, a high school teacher from New Hampshire - a regular person - was going into space for the first time as part of the "Teacher in Space" program. Teachers around the world tuned in during class, their students watching live, learning about everything related to planning and launching a Space Shuttle and its mission.

At the time, I was studying astronomy at the University of Minnesota, a freshman. For the launch, I was in the student union, having lunch with my friend Krista McCallum as was our routine almost every day. We were both particularly excited about the near-coincidence of names, and both of us hoped to be teachers one day; I'd even gotten a scholarship from our hometown school teacher's association. And of course we dreamed of one day being astronauts, as well. Christa McAuliffe carried our dreams with her - she was us! This moment belonged to us as much as to anyone else not directly involved in the flight or related to the crew members. Golly, I can't tell you how excited we were!

This was an important launch because the Space Shuttle had come to be considered merely a semi-truck ferrying cargo to low orbit. Partly to address dwindling popular interest in their flagship Shuttle program, NASA had instituted the Teacher in Space Program. The Space Shuttle had become mundane, its launches routine. No one had been tuning in any longer, and visitors to see live launches had dwindled to small groups of enthusiasts.

But not today. At 11:38AM (Florida time) on January 28, 1986, we all cheered as the flight narrator announced, "We have lift-off of the Space Shuttle Challenger." We watched the ungainly cluster of fat spaceship, external solid-rocket boosters, and external hydrogen tank rise and rotate, trailing its signature three-plume exhaust: two yellow pillars so bright that photographic equipment must stop down apertures, and in the center the gorgeous blue exhaust of the liquid-fuel engines, almost invisible against the solid-rocket's glare.

Seventy-two seconds into the flight, those infamous O-rings had seeped enough solid-rocket exhaust to destroy the skeleton that held everything together. Most importantly, the errant exhaust burned a hole through the external fuel tank and intertank, venting hydrogen and oxygen gases which ignited in a ball of flame.

The seven-astronaut crew of Challenger's STS-51L mission: commander Dick Scobee, pilot Mike Smith; mission specialists Judy Resnik; Ellison Onizuka, and Ron McNair; and payload specialists Greg Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe:


Click the image to see Space.com's description of the Challenger Space Shuttle's final crew and an analysis of what went wrong.

The televisions in the dining area were tuned live to the launch, of course, like most every television in the nation. Everyone gradually grew quiet as this new streamer of flame appeared. We'd all seen dozens of flights before, and this wasn't how it was supposed to go. Almost exactly one minute later, a horrible ball of fire erupted and all the pieces flew apart, trailing plumes of exhaust off at crazy angles.

In the dining area, everyone's faces bore confusion. Some students and teachers had their hands over their mouths. I don't remember much detail about this time except feelings: It couldn't be what it seemed to be; surely this was just another solid-rocket-booster and external-tank separation, right? But why so early? What had gone wrong? What's going on? Surveys later revealed that more than 85% of Americans knew about the disaster within the hour.

We listened in silence as the TV announcer tried to relay information, but he didn't have much to say. No, the astronauts weren't responding. Was the Challenger in aerodynamic flight? It was unclear. We were in denial: It can't have been destroyed. If it had indeed exploded as the video seemed to have shown, surely the Shuttle had made it clear. Surely the astronauts could eject if the Shuttle was too damaged to land. Right?

Reports began filtering in, dashing hopes. Scorched fragments of Challenger on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It wasn't until later that we learned of the pieces of spacesuit also discovered. That's when we knew it was safe to mourn. The whole nation mourned, indeed space enthusiasts the world over felt this as a personal blow. Not only because we had lost seven brave astronaut-scientists, but because of what this might mean in the long run: Would manned spaceflight recover? Modern society had lost its grit, and any loss of life was unacceptable. Would the American people resume the program after such a public tragedy?

In fact, almost three years passed before another Shuttle launch lit up the skies over Cape Canaveral. In the mean time, the Rogers Commission reported that NASA had been aware - since 1977 - of a design flaw in the external boosters' O-rings that could create a serious problem in low temperatures - as the Cape experienced on that fateful morning. The Rogers Commission offered NASA nine recommendations that had to be implemented before Space Shuttle flights could resume. Of course, since then we discovered another fatal flaw when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up over Texas on February 1, 2003, a flaw which has since been addressed.

Even though I was not involved with NASA in any way, this was a moment that changed my life. I felt as if the door to a future in astronautics had closed off. Not because I was afraid of experiencing a similar disaster and dying at launch - every time you climb aboard a mountain of explosives, that's a possibility. But because I feared our nation would lose its will to explore. Even if I were never to become an astronaut, myself - and I was realistic enough to grudgingly accept this - I feared that we would never again have astronauts at all. My earliest dreams were to explore, and after reading my first science-fiction stories, those dreams of exploration pointed to the stars. When I became more educated about things astronomical, I knew that one day I would explore the moons of Jupiter. At least, someone would do the exploring for me, and I could bask in the glory of exploring by proxy as a fellow human being once more walked on the surface of another world.

January 28, 1986, nearly evaporated those dreams.

Since then, dreams of exploring other worlds myself faded in the glare of time, of course, but it's still possible that I will one day go to space. It's possible because I was wrong about the American people: We did not lose our will. We retained our spirit of exploration. We will one day not only explore our Solar System, but the stars themselves.

This I believe. And we must honor the sacrifices of those who paved the way to the stars. Thank you, Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Judy Resnik, Ellison Onizuka, Ron McNair, Greg Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe. And thank you to the other astronauts who gave the ultimate sacrifice, and to all the Soviet cosmonauts, as well.


Where were you on this fateful day?

Chris

Comments

( 36 comments — Leave a comment )
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roseconnelly
Jan. 28th, 2011 05:35 pm (UTC)
I was in grade school, and surprisingly, we didn't watch it at school. We did hear about it at school later in the day. I don't really remember the impact of it, unfortunately. I was a little too young perhaps, nor did my mother really care about any sort of current events--as she still doesn't.



mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
Later in the day - that's like "a few minutes later" in today's terms.
bellanorth
Jan. 28th, 2011 05:45 pm (UTC)
Nicely written, bringing back some of the goosebumps from that day. I was in high school, second lunch had just started so I missed most of the preliminary events but reached the cafeteria and big screen just in time to see the launch and explosion. I will never forget the shock, disbelief, and sheer sadness that brought people together that day in ways normally disallowed in high school.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
What a horrifying way to start lunch.
(no title) - bellanorth - Jan. 31st, 2011 06:42 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
Oh, I know - I forgot to mention that part. I was crying, surrounded by hundreds of other tear-streaked people. Not just the SF fans, though I suspect we were universally gut-shot by this, but the engineers, the scientists, and everyone else with a heart.
the_themiscyran
Jan. 28th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
In junior high, watching it live in my Communications class. I seem to remember something about a Lawrence teacher having been on the short list of candidates for the spot McAuliffe had, which is why we were all watching. Not sure if I'm recalling that bit right or not. I do remember a bunch of kids who hadn't really been paying attention thinking that we were being shown old test footage when the explosion happened, like it couldn't possibly be live.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:52 pm (UTC)
I wonder what it was like for those teachers who thought they were giving the students a treat.
saffronhare
Jan. 28th, 2011 06:26 pm (UTC)
I was a junior in high school overseas, participating in a solid week of Model United Nations at The Hague. A "security situation" is usually introduced so we can work on problem-solving and the like; when we heard about the Challenger, we all thought that was it.

Several hours later, I arrived at the home of my host family, where they very gently brought me into the living room and turned on the German TV station. We American students didn't really start putting the story together until the next morning.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:53 pm (UTC)
I bet that was an alienating feeling, so far from the tragedy back home.
(no title) - mckitterick - Jan. 29th, 2011 03:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
mabfan
Jan. 28th, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC)
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)
the Challenger tragedy was our equivalent of the Kennedy assassination

Wonderfully said. That's exactly how it felt. Thankfully, it turned out not to be the sort of tragedy we feared it to be.
xinef
Jan. 28th, 2011 07:20 pm (UTC)
http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/ns/technology_and_science-space/

Apparently not that many people, other than those in schools or educational institutions watched live. Most caught rebroadcasts.

My sister called my husband, who was working at home. He called the secretary in the office next to the lab where I was working (grad school), so a bunch of us huddled around the radio in our lab. My husband, after making the phone call, immediately started the VCR taping one of the news channels so that we'd have a record, and I'd be able to watch when I got home. I'll never forget those images.

I'll also never forget Richard Feynman at the inquiry showing the effect of cold on the O-ring material, just using his glass of ice water.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:00 pm (UTC)
How horrific that they were possibly aware of their impending doom for three minutes.

I haven't seen the Feynman demo. I bet it's on YouTube....
dichroic
Jan. 28th, 2011 07:22 pm (UTC)
I was in college. I cut through the Law School, noticed that people were standing in odd clusters, and peeked into one of them to see the explosion on TV. But it's not just Challenger; if I ruled NASA I would declared this Remembrance Week, off limits to all future launches (well, assuming they had any future launches planned):

Jan 27, 1967: Apollo 1 launchpad fire
Jan 28, 2006, 25 years ago today: Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launch
Feb 1, 3002: Space Shuttle Columbia destroyed during re-entry

Grissom, Chafee, White, Scobee, McNair, Smith, Onizuka, Resnik, Jarvis, McAuliffe, Husband, McCool, Anderson, Chawla, Brown, Clark, and Ramon.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:01 pm (UTC)
Holy NASA Disaster Week, Batman! The coincidences are creepy.
(no title) - silverfae - Jan. 30th, 2011 05:23 am (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - mckitterick - Jan. 30th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - silverfae - Jan. 30th, 2011 05:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no title) - silverfae - Jan. 31st, 2011 04:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
I'm proud of your school-age you defending the honor of NASA and the Challenger crew.
solan_t
Jan. 28th, 2011 08:58 pm (UTC)
I was at home, although I no longer remember why. Sick? Snow day? Day off because of the launch? I simply don't remember, but I surely should have been in school by that time, even in the Pacific time zone.


I was reading in my room when a brother came in to tell me the shuttle had exploded. Since I had my radio playing and hadn't heard anything, I didn't believe him. And then my radio station got around to announcing that news.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:03 pm (UTC)
It was hard to believe or accept, even seeing it happen.
pamelonian
Jan. 28th, 2011 11:40 pm (UTC)
I was a freshman at KU living in Hashinger Hall. I was on my way to Spanish Conversation class. I remember walking past the 6th floor TV lounge (I didn't have my own TV) and noticing that a pretty large group of students was watching the Space Shuttle launch. I was headed downstairs to catch a bus, but I stopped to watch since I have always been a space fan. I remember how quiet the whole scene was. The launch, the short flight, the smoke. It was impossible to believe what I was seeing. They replayed the explosion many, many times, but it was still so unreal.

I recall the emotions, and the dreaded replays of the event. I realized at that moment that there was no way NASA would ever let an ordinary citizen participate in any future missions. There goes that dream...

I made it to class and we had to talk about the tragedy in Spanish. I learned the phrase "nave espacial" for Space Shuttle.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
Yes, in many ways those fears about the future felt worse even than the present tragedy. Still, I couldn't watch the TV much longer, as they kept replaying the explosion. The Twin Towers collapsing - or the planes flying into them - was the same story all over again.

Ugh, cable news.
drpaisley
Jan. 29th, 2011 02:07 am (UTC)
Atually, I was asleep. I was working in a typesetting shop from 5p-1.30a, and usually didn't get to bed until 4 or so. I was awakened by a friend calling, trying to find out what had happened. I remember staring at the tv, desperately trying to parse what my still sleep-addled brain was seeing, over and over.
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:06 pm (UTC)
I bet that was so hard to believe, especially in that condition. A nightmare.
(Deleted comment)
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
Of course you were! I did things like that, too; I think I even have a photograph of the TV, taken with my film camera. Same thing when Reagan was shot. I guess it helps make it real, too.
clevermanka
Jan. 29th, 2011 03:25 pm (UTC)
We will, one day, venture to the stars


Edited at 2011-01-29 03:37 pm (UTC)
mckitterick
Jan. 29th, 2011 05:08 pm (UTC)
Re: We will, one day, venture to the stars
I love that video so much. I'm sure Sagan had something to say about the tragedy, but I can't recall now.
silverfae
Jan. 30th, 2011 05:32 am (UTC)
Interestingly, one of the Apollo astronauts, Edgar Mitchell, founded this.
mckitterick
Jan. 31st, 2011 03:31 pm (UTC)
Huh! Just because they're astronauts doesn't mean they're straight scientists....
(no title) - silverfae - Jan. 31st, 2011 04:00 pm (UTC) - Expand
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