Thirty-six years ago today, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the cold, clear Florida sky. I was there, in the launch control room at Kennedy Space Center. Here’s my account of that unforgettable event:
It was seventy-three seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986 that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, killing its entire seven member crew, which included a high school teacher, the first private citizen to fly aboard the craft.
I was working with NASA as a public information officer attached to the press site at Kennedy Space Center. My job that morning was to deliver pre-launch commentary at the communication console inside the Launch Control Center at the Cape.
I began my shift at the microphone at about 3am, about the time the tanking operations got underway when millions of pounds of pressurized hypergolic fuels were being pumped into the behemoth at Launch Pad 39-B as the seven astronauts breakfasted before suiting up for the big event.
I would continue commenting on the launch prep until the astronauts were driven to the launch pad. Launch commentary emanated from Kennedy Space Center until the shuttle lifted off and cleared the tower. From then on, the launch became a “mission”, thus the commentary from that point would be undertaken by mission control in Houston.
It was cold in the pre-dawn hours. It was still dark when I left my home bundled in a winter coat. I could see my breath — unusual for Florida.
When I arrived at the LCC (Launch Control Center), my supervisor, NASA Public Affairs news chief Hugh Harris, was already seated at his communications console, headset on. I slid into the adjacent chair and opened a 3-ring binder that contained the launch sequence and milestones that I would be using to explain to the public — the taxpayers — in simple language exactly what was taking place.
“No anomalies” Harris advised me in NASA-speak, meaning everything was proceeding normally. I took over the mic, offering comments as the launch team hit significant milestones in the countdown sequence. And so it went as the clock ticked forward smoothly toward an 11:38 a.m. liftoff.
The seven blue-suited astronauts began their departure from crew quarters in the Operations and Checkout “O and C” building, located about three miles away. NASA cameras, along with national and international TV media, were trained at the exit way where they would do the “walk-out”, waving at those cameras and at an assemblage of cheering NASA and contracted workers as the happy astronauts made their way into the silver Airstream “Astrovan” for the ride to the launch pad.
As they strode toward the TV cameras and the van, I keyed the mic to describe their walkout. Little did I know my words would be heard thousands of times in the aftermath of the shuttle explosion, as TV news programs replayed the last moments we saw the Challenger Seven alive.
During the pre-dawn hours, there was great concern among the Launch Control engineers about the frigid temperatures at the launch pad. Some advised against a launch, arguing that the rocket boosters’ O-rings had not been tested for such a cold environment and it was not certain they would perform within their design parameters. But others in more senior engineering positions prevailed for a lift-off. Later, many believed they felt pressured to launch lest they be the cause of a delay that would cost NASA millions of dollars. And besides, everyone in the world, especially school-age children, were tuned in to see Christa McAuliffe become the first Teacher in Space.
Throughout the pre-dawn morning a team was sent with long broom-like sticks to break up ice that had built-up under the shuttle. An infrared camera that was focused on the right-hand solid rocket booster’s aft field joint showed the ambient temperature at a mere 8°F. Discussion about the temperature concerns continued throughout the morning, albeit outside of our comm loop. Ultimately after much haggling among several key engineers, the fateful decision was made to proceed, and the clock ran steadily for launch.
Finally, we hit the T-minus ten second mark.
“Ten…nine…eight…seven…six… we have main engine start.”
The excitement was palpable. America’s first Teacher in Space was about to make history! “Four, three…two…one…and lift-off! Lift-off of the 25th Space Shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!”
At this point, our portion of the commentary was over. I swiveled around to face a glass floor-to-ceiling window behind me to watch Challenger rise from the pad. As she climbed into the deep blue heavens, a gorgeous billowing white column rose underneath her, the twin solid rockets and three main engines glowing brilliantly like blinding sunlight against a cold blue sky.
Those were the last words we would ever hear from the Challenger.
About 73 seconds into the climb at 48,000 feet over the steely blue Atlantic, the solid rocket O-ring failed to seat, allowing a blow torch of super hot solid propellent to set a chain of events in motion that caused the ship to break apart. The gorgeous white contrail split into a Y shape, giving me my first clue that something had gone awry.
Instantly, I saw a single rocket spiral outward, unattached from the orbiter. Smoking fireworks spiraled forth from the center, ghastly tendrils that turned a sickly orange as gravity pulled them earthward.
We were witnessing a catastrophe.
I couldn’t breathe. I knew that we were watching the awful death of seven of our own.
The room went silent as systems engineers and managers stared at their now-freeze-framed computer screens. All data flow from the shuttle had ceased.
“Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation,”reported public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt in Houston. “Obviously a major malfunction. We have no downlink.”
After a pause, Nesbitt continued, “We have a report from the Flight Dynamics Officer that the vehicle has exploded.”
At every console, stunned engineers’ heads dropped in shock and sorrow. Yet within moments, the launch control team regained its composure and snapped into action, beginning a drill for which they had practiced and rehearsed for just such a moment, one they prayed that they would never have to use. Having worked with the astronaut team for months, they felt it personally.
Contingency procedures went immediately into effect at both Launch Control at Kennedy and Mission Control in Houston, running through emergency rescue operations in a vain attempt to somehow save the crew. But a few minutes later we knew the crew was gone. Gone…
Part of the emergency process included locking launch center room doors, shutting down telephone communication with the outside world, and carefully running through checklists that would ensure that relevant data was correctly recorded and preserved. All materials were embargoed, including my three-ring binder and my purse. Nothing was to be removed. Everything was to be preserved for the eventual investigation to find out why. What happened. How this ghastly tragedy happened.
Hugh Harris hurriedly stepped away from his communications console to consult with NASA’s Public Affairs director, political appointee Shirley Green who had made the trip from Washington DC to be there for the big event and was now watching the catastrophe in stunned bewilderment.
My console headset crackled. Keying the closed comm loop button, I answered the call. It was the White House. “The President would like to speak to the nation,” said the voice at the other end. “We’d like some assistance in crafting a statement.”
President Ronald Reagan and his staff reacted to the news as they watched it on a television in the Oval Office Dining room. In this room, the president might occasionally have casual meals alone or with his staff and catch the news on television or discuss White House policy. Because this room is usually furnished with a small television, it is often here that the president first sees news events being reported from around the world.
A short time later, President Reagan appeared on TV monitors worldwide, offering words of condolence and comfort to the nation. I watched his solemn address on a TV monitor.
President Reagan stated:
“Today is a day for mourning…a national loss…The members of the Challenger crew were pioneers…
The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future…
“There’s a coincidence today. On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and a historian later said,
‘He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it.’
“Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake’s, complete.”
The days and weeks that followed were filled with a blur of media frenzy and ocean salvage operations. Eventually, I was asked to work with the Rogers Commission, the official Presidential Investigation team to document and author the KSC contribution to the investigation, which was subsequently published in a book titled “The Historical Summary of the 51-L Data and Design Analysis Task Force.”
The position afforded me a unique open-door access and bird’s eye view of every meeting held with key NASA engineers assembled with astronauts who sifted through every piece of data. I worked out of Bob Crippen’s office with the famed astronaut and his staff. Crippen, along with John Young, were the first astronauts to fly in the Space Shuttle.
My first duty was to visit a temporary hangar erected at nearby Canaveral Air Force Station that housed the salvaged pieces of the Challenger as they were retrieved from the ocean floor. When I arrived, much of the orbiter had already been salvaged and laid out in accident investigation fashion, piecing it together. The crew cockpit and mid-deck were twisted and shattered, a haunting reminder of the crew’s last moments when they slammed into the ocean at some godawful speed. The hangar was to many, a holy place, where one spoke in hushed voices as we viewed the reassembled craft, the charred surfaces visible where the solid rockets had burned through the shuttle’s tiled wings and fuselage. Burned bits and pieces were all that were left of Challenger.
Later, at the memorial service for the seven, President Ronald Reagan said:
“The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved good-bye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’“
Read the backstory on the investigation:
Volume 2: Appendix L - NASA Accident Analysis Team Report. [Part 1] [L1] STS 51-L Data & Design Analysis Task Force Accident Analysis Team April 1986 SUBMITTED BY: ---------------------------------------------- JOHN W. THOMAS, DEPUTY ACCIDENT ANALYSIS TEAM APPROVED BY: ---------------------------------------------- J.R. THOMPSON, JR., LEAD ACCIDENT ANALYSIS TEAM [L2] Table of Contents 1. Introduction. 2. Accident Timeline. 3. Anomalies/Significant Observations. 4. Areas of Consideration. 5. SRB/SRM Possibilities. 6. Joint/Seal Possibilities. 7. Findings. 8. Appendix A.