Tuesday, January 28, 2014

R.I.P. Challenger

January 28, 1986 is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. I am reposting my eyewitness account of the space shuttle Challenger explosion, which I originally wrote just a few years after the tragedy.

[After graduating from law school and deciding I didn't want to be a lawyer, I got accepted into the Presidential Management Intern (PMI) program (now known as the Presidential Management Fellowship program), which brings recent graduates with advanced degrees into the federal government. Having always been interested in the space program, I sought a job at NASA, and successfully began my career at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, during the summer of 1985. Although I was not in Florida, I did see the Challenger disaster happen before my eyes on January 28, 1986, and a few years later, I wrote a summary of what happened that day.]

On the day that the shuttle was to be launched, I called Karen P., my fellow PMI in Code M (the Space Shuttle office within NASA), several times to see if they were going to launch and when. It was very cold at the Cape and there were concerns about whether to try or not, even though the original launch date had been scrubbed already. Later in the morning, Karen called to tell me the launch was on. I went down one flight of stairs to Code M's large conference room, which was set up with about three big screen TVs.

I had taken a particular interest in this flight because of the teacher in space program. I had been sending NASA materials back to the Wood County School System (in great numbers) and was already scheduled (during the upcoming President's Day long weekend) to speak to the Edison Jr. High science classes about NASA and also at the University of Charleston. I had a large official Teacher in Space poster on my wall in my office, a recent addition to all my smaller NASA pictures.

I got down there earlier than usual and watched the last 5 minutes of the countdown. I was able to sit next to Betsy C., a PMI from the class ahead of me that I knew through Gwen Y, a Space Station co-worker. I saved a seat for Karen but she never made it. Betsy was the only other person I really knew in the room, the rest were just familiar faces from the hallways.

I remember watching the launch and there was a general air of excitement. Some man sitting up front at a table made a rocket with his index finger and followed the shuttle into the sky. As it gained altitude and was getting smaller, the video crew switched to a more powerful camera. This new camera view was very tight on the shuttle, and soon after the switch, there were flashes of haze around the ET (external tank) and SRBs (solid rocket boosters), and then everything turned white. The camera was so tight that we could not tell at first that an explosion had occurred.

As the cameras strained to decipher what had happened, everyone knew something had gone wrong. I remember several "Oh my God!"s and I remember one woman pulling a rosary out of her purse and praying. One or two people dashed from the room to head to their desks. Most everyone else sat there stunned. Some eventually started crying. I remember my first thought was a positive one. I had hoped that the haze I saw was caused by a premature separation of the SRBs and that somehow the orbiter had been able to get away from the explosion and would be gliding back to the runway for an emergency abort landing.

Maybe the camera crew thought the same thing because after showing us a long range shot of the smoke from the explosion, they suddenly cut to a gray spot against the blue sky. Someone said "there they are" but as the camera zoomed closer and focused in, someone said what was apparent --"that's not them because that is tumbling." What the camera had picked up was one of the large pieces of debris during its free fall to the sea. Indeed, another camera shot came up that showed one of the SRB recovery boats alone in the ocean, with pieces of debris making white splashes in the water all around it. Another camera change showed a parachute deployed, but someone was quick to squelch any hopes by pointing out that it wasn't the astronauts because they didn't have chutes. It turned out to be from one of the aborted SRBs.

The capcom had been about as stunned as we were. I remember that he announced that the range radar officer had confirmed that he had lost all contact with the orbiter. The capcom later admitted that there apparently had been a "major anomaly."

Most everyone hung around for a good while, hoping to find something out. I remember that the only interaction I had with anyone else there was when Betsy and I turned to each other in saddened disbelief. The shuttle had blown up before our eyes! We didn't say any words, but I'll never forget the look in her eyes or the way I felt inside.

Finally, with no immediate forthcoming news from the Cape, I decided that I needed to get back upstairs to the Space Station office. When I arrived, my supervisor and co-workers knew that I had gone down to see the launch live. John Sheahan, my division director, insisted that I come sit down in his office. He later said that I was white with shock. By the time I had got up there, everyone had already found out, but I was able to give them an eyewitness account of what had happened. Everyone was stunned.

I remember that I had a meeting on a procurement issue I was working on in the afternoon, and there was a decision at some point to go on with everyday business. I sat in the meeting with Billie W. but my mind wasn't really on it. Either before or after that meeting, I had gone to the telecommunications conference room on our floor to watch NASA Select (NASA’s internal closed circuit television). I remember that they were only showing a calm beach scene from the Cape, with the waves rolling in serving as a memorial.

I remember that later in the afternoon (like 3:00 or so) Space Station had a group meeting to anticipate the impact on the program. Everyone was trying to decide answers to possible press questions, such as effect on the construction, is it necessary for a four shuttle fleet, what about reliance on shuttle for astronauts, what if space station was up there now. I think all of us thought that we would probably be flying again by the end of the year. I remember Space Station deputy administrator John H. telling me that he always knew that the ascent was the most dangerous time and that the descent was a piece of cake. I stayed at work late, and spent the later hours in the Space Station administrator Andy S's office watching the network news coverage. I eventually stayed until the President's eloquent address was over. Then I went up to Capitol Hill for a West Virginia Association meeting and talked with numerous people about what I had seen, including Mike F., whom I knew best. It was quite a day!

In the days following, I found out that Karen had decided to watch it on a TV in someone's office. She and I (as well as others) have often commented to each other about how those of us who saw it happen live were more strongly affected by what happened. Nothing is like that initial period of wondering what has happened. It will stay with you forever.

R.I.P. Challenger

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