It was a clear, cold Tuesday 27 years ago today that the nation was poised to record a bright new chapter in the history of manned space flight. Instead, it turned into the most disastrous day America’s space program had ever encountered to that date.
There was such excitement over the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger because on this mission it was carrying its first private citizen as a crewmember, Christa McAuliffe, an elementary school teacher who was going to conduct two lessons from outer space. Her third grade class was invited to the Kennedy Space Center to view the launch from the VIP bleachers three miles from launch complex 39 B. McAuliffe’s family was there as well.
I had covered the space program extensively, from the days of Gemini to Apollo to the launch of the first shuttle in 1981. This was the 10th mission for Challenger. I wanted very much to be on hand for this launch but by this time space flights had become so routine, my news director decided not to send me on this one. We had access to NASA’s video.
As I watched preparations for the launch on TV and heard how cold it was in Florida that day, I laughingly thought that perhaps I was better off staying in New York where the temperatures were a little higher. However, it did cross my mind that it was unusual to go ahead with a launch when temperatures were near the freezing point. It was 36 degrees at time of launch, 15 percent cooler than any previous launch.
I was riveted to the TV as the countdown progressed and finally, at 11:38 a.m., the much-delayed mission began with the solid rocket boosters ever so slowly lifting the shuttle Challenger off the pad and into a cloudless sky, contrasted by the white contrail from the burned rocket fuel that stretched for miles.
Then, in an instant just 73 seconds into the flight, cheers of joy turned to a hushed silence, as the white cloud in the sky became erratic, jutting out in different directions. It was evident that something had gone terribly wrong. A fiery explosion seconds later left little doubt that the shuttle had blown up. Wreckage rained over the ocean as NASA declared the Challenger was gone, along with its crew of seven, including teacher McAuliffe.
I immediately called the office and suggested I get on the next flight to Florida. I arrived in time to file a telephone report for our 7:30 p.m. WPIX Action News, and prepare a report for out 10 p.m. Independent Network News.
A pall of grief and disbelief had fallen over the Kennedy Space Center and the surrounding communities of Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach, thriving spaceports I remembered from the heyday of space exploration, the days when restaurants offered “moon burgers” and hotels emblazoned such names as “Moonport Inn.”
This was a different day. Flags were draped at half-staff. Marquees bore the names of the seven lost astronauts, along with the words, “You are heroes.” There was a numbness among workers at the space center. Some were so shaken by the disaster, they had difficulty speaking, their voices choked with emotion. Darkness had fallen as I prepared to go live from the press site, a couple of miles from the launch complex.
The frigid temperatures chilled my body and I began to shiver shortly before I began my report. I hadn’t brought clothing warm enough. With temperatures so cold, I again wondered how they could have launched in such weather. I looked more stern than usual as I related details of the disaster on camera. Afterwards, anchor Morton Dean asked me what impact this disaster would have on the future of the space program. I noted that 15 more shuttle missions were scheduled that year and that in all likelihood they would be put on hold until investigators determined what caused the Challenger explosion.
The next several days were long and arduous. I filed reports for our noon, evening and nighttime broadcasts. The loss of seven astronauts was gut wrenching. Particularly the loss of that crusading teacher who volunteered to teach kids everywhere a lesson from space. What a moment that would have been. It was all so sad. America’s loss felt like a personal loss to each and every one of us. And yes, I felt tears streaming down my cheeks as I covered a memorial service at the space center.
As I covered the story I thought about my long-time desire to venture into space. I had already made the first cut as a candidate in the Journalist In Space endeavor, which was to follow other civilian ventures. I was not deterred, and more eager than ever to make such a pioneering journey. It would have been the ultimate assignment. But it was not to be. The civilian-in-space program was scrubbed.
After an exhaustive investigation, it was concluded that the primary cause, along with the cold weather, was the failure of the rubber O-rings that were used to prevent fuel from escaping during the initial propulsion of the rocket boosters. The O-rings failed because of several factors, including faulty design of the solid rocket boosters, insufficient low-temperature testing of the O-ring material and the lack of proper communication between different levels of NASA management.
It would be two years before the space program would resume with the launch of the Shuttle Discovery in September 1988. There were countless missions and incredible successes as we forged ahead in our exploration of this new frontier in space.
That is, until fate intervened once again in February of 2003 when the Space Shuttle Columbia, on its 28th mission, disintegrated during its re-entry, killing all seven astronauts aboard.
That disaster had a particular emotional impact on me because I was there when Columbia made its maiden voyage in April of 1981. Then I was chilled, not by the weather, but by the pride I felt as I watched this massive piece of American ingenuity reach toward the heavens.