Remembering Challenger

 

Twenty-nine years ago today I was wrapping up a class at the Navy’s Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Fla. Just before our lunch break, a Chief Petty Officer slipped in the back of the room and quietly said, “the Shuttle just exploded.”

About half of us laughed, because the thought of an space shuttle accident seemed ridiculous. Rocket and shuttle flights seemed routine to kids like us who had grown up after NASA’s early trial-and-error phase. A couple weeks earlier, a group of us traveled to Cape Canaveral to watch a routine Columbia launch in person.

When we turned around, the look on the CPO’s face showed he wasn’t joking. We all piled out of the classroom and looked to the east. A thick contrail rose into the bright blue sky, its ascent interrupted by a twisted, ugly bloom. It hung in the air for an hour and a half before dissipating.

Five hours later, it seemed the whole nation tuned in when President Reagan gave a televised address instead of the State of the Union that was scheduled.

Rewatching Reagan’s speech confirms the public’s blasé attitude toward the shuttle after 24 successful launches:

We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us. But for 25 years the United States space program has been doing just that. We’ve grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we’ve only just begun. We’re still pioneers. They, the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers.

Reagan closed with one of his most famous lines: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.'”

Where were you when it happened?

There are 40 comments.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  1. Dave Carter Contributor

    I was on duty at the main gate at England AFB, LA, checking ID cards and signing visitors onto the installation. News of the incident broke on the radio. I saw the footage later that day, of course. I had heard the “slip the surly bonds of earth,” phrase previously, in a poem dedicated both to pilots and astronauts, but it never seemed so appropriate as when President Reagan employed the words that day.

    • #1
    • January 28, 2015, at 3:25 PM PDT
    • Like
  2. Profile Photo Member

    I was a Navy Ensign assigned to the H-1 FLeet replacement squadron at NAS Pensacola. I remember that it was a very cold morning for Florida….

    • #2
    • January 28, 2015, at 3:34 PM PDT
    • Like
  3. Percival Thatcher

    I was debugging code for the C-5B’s flight engineer’s console down in Georgia. Someone came into the lab and said “go to the conference room.”

    The conference room had a TV. It was packed with engineers, secretaries, and managers.

    Nothing much got done the rest of the day.

    • #3
    • January 28, 2015, at 3:44 PM PDT
    • Like
  4. EJHill Podcaster

    I was one of the few people who watched it happen live.

    I was helping to wire the master control of an independent UHF television station in the Philadelphia market. We had just gotten our C-Band satellite system up and NASA’s feed was up on our monitors.

    The networks had long ceased carrying coverage of such “routine” events but we knew where the “backhaul” feed was.

    • #4
    • January 28, 2015, at 3:54 PM PDT
    • Like
  5. Karon Adams Inactive

    I was a weekend DJ and a weekday store clerk. I walked past a radio in the office to hear the official statement and I crumbled. I spent the rest of the day, unpacking shipments, watching TV coverage, and crying.

    • #5
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:00 PM PDT
    • Like
  6. John Davey Member

    I grew up adoring the Manned Spaceflight Program. I was Eight months out of high school and one week into my job at TRW – everything in the building stopped. We rolled TVs out into the production floor, and they were still out there when the night shift came in. Apparently they left them out for the graveyard shift as well, because they were still on when I came in the next morning.

    As a kid I remember seeing Nixon announce his resignation, and the subsequent helicopter flight out the next day. I recall seeing the film of Wallace being shot, and of the breaking news that Elvis had died. The news of the fall of Saigon. Ford being shot at in Capitol Park in my hometown. The Iranian hostages. The failure in the desert of Operation Eagle Claw. Lennon being shot. I was home, sick, from school when Reagan was shot.

    All those things had significant impact with me. But Challenger was different. I didn’t sleep the night of the 28th, stayed up and watched Nightline, and any other news programming I could find. I was born two months after the loss of Apollo 1, so it never really hit home that we could lose a shuttle. Still one of the major touchstones in my lifetime.

    • #6
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:02 PM PDT
    • Like
  7. LunaticRex Inactive

    I was at Lowry AFB, Colorado waiting for my Basic Electronics course to start. Just finished BMTS, and in ‘Awaiting Further Instruction’ (AFI*) status. A few of us were cleaning some O-6’s conference room and there was a TV on in the room. Everything stopped, of course. None of us could really believe what we saw even though we were watching it. One of maybe 4 or 5 times in my life I can say exactly where I was and what I was doing.

    * We had other definitions for the acronym. Of course.

    • #7
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:04 PM PDT
    • Like
  8. John Walker Contributor

    Jon Gabriel, Ed.: Where were you when it happened?

    I was asleep when it happened. I had watched the the early Shuttle launches, even staying up all night for both the failed first attempt and eventual launch of STS-1, but by the time of STS-51-L they didn’t even televise the launches on the broadcast channels I could receive. I first learned of it upon arriving at work where somebody immediately said, “Have you heard? The Shuttle exploded.”

    I was, of course, shocked and dismayed, but not surprised. In 1983, G. Harry Stine had published a column in Analog, “The Sky Is Going to Fall”, in which he predicted, based upon his experience as a rocketeer in the early days at the White Sands Missile Range, the Shuttle’s projected mission rate, and the lack of a crew escape system, that such a tragedy was inevitable some time in the program.

    On STS-9, Columbia barely escaped disaster when two of its APUs caught fire during re-entry and landing. The problem was not detected until after landing, when major damage in the aft compartment was discovered. This event was hardly covered outside the specialist press. But everybody in the program knew how close to disaster this mission had come, and how many other things could go wrong.

    NASA’s successes, including getting the crew back from Apollo 13, tended to create a sense of invincibility and a “can do” attitude which can be deadly when faced with a can’t do budget and impossible schedule constraints. But space is difficult, and those who pioneer will sometimes pay the price. While Apollo 11 was en route to the Moon, William Safire wrote this speech for President Nixon to deliver if a malfunction stranded Aldrin and Armstrong on the Moon.

    Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man’s search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts.

    “Others will follow”…indeed. Reagan’s speechwriters did a tremendous job on a moment’s notice in the speech in the main post.

    • #8
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:29 PM PDT
    • Like
  9. Petty Boozswha Member

    I’m pretty sure Peggy Noonan wrote that speech – Peter Robinson would know. I was in a classroom at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus; the one next the Johnson Space Center. Many people were involved or related to the space program there and it was a very somber experience.

    • #9
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:45 PM PDT
    • Like
  10. EJHill Podcaster

    John Walker: “Others will follow”…indeed. Reagan’s speechwriters did a tremendous job on a moment’s notice in the speech in the main post.

    That was pure Peggy Noonan.

    Peter has talked about it in the past but there’s a process in the White House called “staffing out” a speech. Copies get circulated and everybody gets input. Because of the quick turnaround that was held to an absolute minimum.

    From People:

    Noonan also ran afoul of policy bureaucrats—known as “the mice”—who nibbled away at her prose. When the crew of the Challenger space shuttle died in a fiery blast, she wrote, for Reagan: “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them—this morning, as they prepared for their journey, and waved goodbye, and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth [to] touch the face of God.’ “—quoting the poem High Flight. A National Security Council staffer, Noonan reports, tried to change the ending to “reach out and touch someone.” Noonan hit the roof, and her words survived.

    Reagan Challenger

    Reagan, John Poindexter, Pat Buchanan, Alfred Kingon, Don Regan, Edward Djerejian watch news reports of the Challenger disaster

    • #10
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:53 PM PDT
    • Like
  11. Instugator Thatcher

    I was on my way to class while a Cadet 3rd Class at the USAF Academy. In the classroom we were able to see the reports on the TV.

    • #11
    • January 28, 2015, at 4:58 PM PDT
    • Like
  12. Jeff Petraska Member

    My wife and I were bringing our firstborn baby home from the hospital. We heard the news on the car radio about a mile from home.

    • #12
    • January 28, 2015, at 5:04 PM PDT
    • Like
  13. Steve C. Member

    Memory is funny. I remember more details of when I heard about the JFK shooting. Still, it was late in the duty day in Germany. I don’t remember if it was on TV in the day room. I think I saw parts of the RR speech on the news.

    • #13
    • January 28, 2015, at 5:14 PM PDT
    • Like
  14. Dave L Member

    I was giving a check ride in a UH-1H at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia. We hovered into the hot refueling point, (a refueling point where you do not shut down the helicopter) and while there I noticed the soldier refueling talking with our crew chief and the crew chief shaking his head from side to side, soon the crew chief came on the intercom and said the shuttle had blown up! I was incredulous, and said something to the effect thats impossible. Later when we found out it was all too true, I felt like I had been gut punched.

    • #14
    • January 28, 2015, at 5:15 PM PDT
    • Like
  15. PJS Thatcher
    PJS

    I was at work and heard nothing about it. When I got home my roommates were gathered around the TV in the living room. At first I thought it had to be a joke. Growing up, my dad’s best friend had been some sort of bigwig at NASA. My heart ached for the families of the astronauts and all the NASA team. Years later my brother was an engineer at Goddard doing shuttle mission support when Columbia didn’t make it home. It was horrible for all of them.

    • #15
    • January 28, 2015, at 5:23 PM PDT
    • Like
  16. Seawriter Member

    At my desk in what was then McDonnell Douglas’s Tower I in Clear Lake. It was about an hour after I had been to a meeting at Johnson Space Center. On the way back to Tower I a co-worker and I were speculating about how long it would be before we lost a Shuttle (I thought it would be sometime in the next year — six to twelve months).

    51-L was the first mission since STS-4 that I did not support at the Navigation Console at Mission Control. My old group had transitioned to Rockwell Space Operation Corporation, and I had chosen to stay with McDonnell Douglas. I would likely have been at the Nav Console waiting to take over on-orbit navigation once powered flight ended and the high-speed team was done.

    Seawriter

    • #16
    • January 28, 2015, at 6:10 PM PDT
    • Like
  17. GiveMeLiberty Member

    In those days I kept a radio on in the kitchen while I working in there. I was making Lipton chicken noodle soup and sandwiches for myself and two small children when I heard the news break in to the regularly scheduled programming. I finished getting the lunch for the kids, poured my soup into a mug, and then stationed myself in front of the tv.

    • #17
    • January 28, 2015, at 6:36 PM PDT
    • Like
  18. DubyaC Member

    I walked into the cafeteria of the company where I worked – where I still work – to take a coffee break. There was a very large crowd around the TV monitors and I wondered what caused such interest, but I didn’t find out until after I got my coffee and went to join some colleagues at one of the tables.

    I asked what was on TV and was told the shuttle blew up. I couldn’t believe it but of course it was all too true.

    I recall that it was unusually cold in Florida that day and after the accident there was talk that the cold weather had caused some seals to contract in a way that made them fail. I don’t remember if that was ever the official determination of cause but it always sounded very plausible.

    • #18
    • January 28, 2015, at 6:45 PM PDT
    • Like
  19. Muleskinner, Weasel Wrangler Member

    I was just walking into my grad advisor’s office coming back from an appointment at the local office of the State Vocational Rehabilitation Commission. I saw the launch on the tv outside Herr Doktor Professor’s office, and was just sitting down to tell him that the tests were back and I was reliably informed that I am probably not that dumb, but I am definitely dyslexic, when the secretary came in and said “it exploded.”

    Much later, when we got back to the purpose of my original visit, the discussion became about who is really qualified to be an “expert” about anything as complicated as a space shuttle on a cold morning, or the inner workings of the human mind.

    • #19
    • January 28, 2015, at 7:03 PM PDT
    • Like
  20. Jules PA Member

    I was a first year teacher, watching the launch on live TV broadcast, because I was home from work, due to a snow storm. I remember taking a while to realize what had happened. That was a sad day for so many people, but most of all for the families of the crew that was lost.

    • #20
    • January 28, 2015, at 7:57 PM PDT
    • Like
  21. HerrForce1 Member

    I strode into Freshman Earth Science class jostling with my awkward high school classmates per usual. Soon after the bell sounded, our usually upbeat and collegial “science geek” teacher entered with the sober look mentioned in so many previous posts. He informed us of the news and looked for a TV to hook up so we could view the coverage. When I arrived home later in the evening, I learned that my mother had alertly inserted a new tape into our Betamax machine shortly after the tragedy. President Reagan’s address linked above elicited a memory of a dozen thoughts not considered in years. Thanks @exjon for the pause to remember.

    • #21
    • January 28, 2015, at 8:35 PM PDT
    • Like
  22. Tony Martyr Member

    I was a University student, doing vacation work in Mine Maintenance at the Tom Price mine. In that age of slower communications, it took most of the rest of the day to get any more information, or even confirm that it had happened.

    It’s the useful modern definition of “world changing events” – do I remember where I was when I heard?

    • #22
    • January 28, 2015, at 10:18 PM PDT
    • Like
  23. Cow Girl Thatcher

    I was a teacher’s aide in a Southern California elementary school. I only worked mornings, so I heard it from the car radio on the way to pick up my toddler from the sitter. It was especially awful because of the excitement of a teacher/astronaut. Many of our older students in that school were in the Math/Science Magnet program and were very interested in her adventure. Lessons were planned around the launch and her flight in space. I only felt the slightest bit lucky that my students were first graders, and wouldn’t have much awareness of what had happened. It was so sad.

    • #23
    • January 28, 2015, at 10:44 PM PDT
    • Like
  24. Locke On Member

    I was deep in code at a startup in Monterey, CA (with Gary Kildall, John Walker may remember him). My wife knows I’m a space nut, I still have clippings going back to early Gemini. She called me with the news. Nothing much got done the rest of the day.

    • #24
    • January 28, 2015, at 11:13 PM PDT
    • Like
  25. Profile Photo Member

    I was in sixth grade. Many upper level students at our small Catholic school were crowded into one room trying to watch the launch on a old tv that was mounted on an av cart. Being an astronaut was like being a superhero in my mind so the idea that they we gone was incomprehensible at first.

    • #25
    • January 29, 2015, at 4:28 AM PDT
    • Like
  26. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    We were giving a mid-term American history exam to 8th graders. We were trying to come up with an extra credit question and settled on “Who is Christa McAuliffe?” That question was written on the board at almost the same time the shuttle exploded.

    I kept asking the same question…Where did it land? I couldn’t fathom a complete failure and kept thinking it landed in Bermuda or Diego Garcia, or somewhere. We spent the rest of the day making sure no news of the tragedy got to the kids. We were trying to protect them. How things have changed.

    • #26
    • January 29, 2015, at 4:54 AM PDT
    • Like
  27. JustmeinAZ Member

    I had left work for a mid-morning dentist appointment and heard the news on my car radio. It was unbelievable – even more so than JFK’s assassination for some reason.

    Reagan’s speech brings tears every time I hear it.

    • #27
    • January 29, 2015, at 6:16 AM PDT
    • Like
  28. ctlaw Coolidge

    I was asleep in my dorm room. I woke up, turned on the TV and encountered the talking heads in generic solemn blather. It took quite some time for them to give any indication that there had been a problem with Challenger. At first, I assumed Qadafi had done something in the Med.

    • #28
    • January 29, 2015, at 6:51 AM PDT
    • Like
  29. Reese Member

    In port, NAS Alameda, in the common lounging area of L-Division (like “RL” for submariners) berthing on USS California (CGN-36). Mostly shocked silence, maybe some, “F, no way” muttering.

    Memory is that we were watching it live, but someone above said networks weren’t covering routine launches anymore. Maybe it was CNN.

    • #29
    • January 29, 2015, at 9:14 AM PDT
    • Like
  30. Pilli Inactive

    My Radio Shack was in a strip center on Merritt Island, home to Kennedy Space Center. All of the store operators would go out into the parking lot, look north and watch the shuttle launches. Then back inside and back to work.

    One of my Radio Shack customers had set up a 2-meter repeater station for the local hams. He had gotten permission from NASA to rebroadcast their “NASA Select” audio transmissions. These were the live communications between launch control and the shuttle.

    That morning had been cold but was now warming up. Most of us weren’t even wearing jackets. We were out in the lot and I had a scanner radio tuned to John’s 2-meter setup. We were listening to NASA and commenting on how normal things were going.

    We heard, “Challenger you’re go for throttle up. Engines are now at 115%. What the…” The feed went dead. That ugly tw0-pronged cloud blossomed in the sky. We could see things falling, smoking, too far away to recognize. Someone asked, “What happened?” I answered, “It just blew up!” Several, “NO! It couldn’t have.”

    I ran in to the store and turned every TV to a different news cast so we wouldn’t miss anything. I popped in a video cassette to record the news. It’s disappeared since.

    Another customer was directly involved in the ocean floor search for pieces of Challenger. He would be on-board the search ship all week running the sonar and come home on Friday’s. He always stopped in with search updates on Friday evenings. “We found a piece of wing or we found a piece of fuel tank.”

    One Friday, he stopped in and had a strangely sad look. His shoulders were slumped and he looked really tired. I asked him how he was doing. “Uh, OK.” This wasn’t normal. I asked him how the search was going. No answer. I said, “You found the crew cabin.” He answered, “Can’t say.” I said, “And, it was intact.” He said, “Watch the news.” But I knew.

    I closed the store early that night and we walked down to the pub at the far end of the strip center and had a couple of beers together and didn’t talk about the shuttle.

    • #30
    • January 29, 2015, at 10:30 AM PDT
    • Like
  1. 1
  2. 2