I was working a temp. assignment in the Graphics department for
McDonell Douglas at the Kennedy Space Center. That assignment
had already lasted a year, and it looked like it would soon turn
permanent. It was an exciting time in the history of the space center
and I was so proud to be a part of it!
I grew up in
Melbourne where, all through my life, I've been able to step right
outside my house to watch a launch and feel the rumble of the shockwave.
I watched all the first manned launches from my front yard. We could
see the different stages fall away from the early rockets. I was
always a big science fiction reader, too, particularly Asimov and
the early Heinlen adventures. All-in-all, I was thrilled to be working
at the space center.
Astronauts exit the O&C building on their way to the launch
in the Operations & Checkout building in the Industrial area
- right in the thick of things. There were offices for the heads
of all the major contractors, conference rooms and laboratories
and a huge clean bay (where shuttle payloads are prepared) and the
astronaut crews quarters. (The door you always see the astronauts
walk out of to go the the pad for launch...that was the door I used
every day to get to and from my office.)
We were encouraged
to take a deep interest in the end product of our labors, and were
kept involved in the process. We weren't just doing our little daily
jobs - we were part of a huge team effort that involved dangerous
chemicals and explosives and precise timing....and people who ultimately
put their lives on the line trusting that everyone has done their
inside and out announced major steps in each flight, with a running
countdown to launch from the control center. Astronauts often held
"Meet the Astronaut" gatherings where we would meet an
astronaut or two, hear a little about their experiences (if you
ever get a chance, listen to Mike McCully - the man can tell a story!),
ask questions and get autographs. Sometimes an astronaut or congressman
or some other big-wig would just go around from one office to another
and meet everyone individually and shake their hand.
If you wanted
the autograph of a particular astronaut you could get a nice print
of their official photo from the Public Affairs office, send it
to their publicity department and get your autograph back within
a few days.
It was a
happy, busy time, but we became a little blasé - we were
launching something like a shuttle a month, so it wasn't such a
big deal. We didn't always want to drop our work and go downstairs
to watch, we just listened to the intercomm announcements. If we
did go outside to watch we would applaud the liftoff and immediately
go back to the office.
Then came the
Challenger mission and the Teacher in Space program. One civilian
school teacher, Christa McAuliffe, was selected to train and go
on a shuttle mission. The publicity was intense!
had a daughter who was making a career change and going into teaching.
He got a publicity photo of Christa McAuliffe and wrote her a
note telling about his daughter and how he wanted to give her
an autographed photo of the "Teacher in Space" for inspiration.
He put the note and photo in a Holey
Joe and sent it off.
not a good month for the Challenger mission. Not only was there
a storm of publicity because of the Teacher in Space program, but
this was to be the first launch from the new launch pad 39B...and
the launch was delayed over and over and over. The media was brutal
over our failure to launch, and pressure mounted. There was a rumor
that the Vice President was on hand for the launch on the morning
of the 28th.
got back his Holey Joe with his original note and the autographed
photo of Christa McAuliffe. He tossed the note in the wastebasket,
reused the Holey Joe to send something out, and took the photo
home to his daughter.
28, 1986 11:38:00 a.m. It
was cold that morning. I think it had gotten down to 26 degrees
overnight, and had warmed up to something like 36 by launch time.
Many of you don't consider that cold, but to us it is!
on the STS 51-L launch complex.
the launch had already been delayed so many times and they would
never launch on such a cold day, so it probably wasn't worth the
effort of going downstairs. But, the intercomm kept us informed
as certain steps were accomplished and we finally decided to go
on down to watch. Our building was only about 6 miles from the launch
pad, so it was going to be a very good view when it finally did
on the front steps of the O&C with the intercomm giving
the play-by-play. Most of us didn't even grab a jacket - we didn't
intend to stay out very long. Shivering, we watched the Challenger
finally rise from the pad.
It was a sharp,
clear morning and the flame of the engine blast and the white smoke
trail looked beautiful against the blue sky as the Challenger headed
out over the Atlantic. It looked like a normal launch so we applauded
and most of us had started to turn back to the building when suddenly,
73 seconds into flight, things went horribly wrong. Other than a
gasp or two we were silent, stunned, no longer even feeling the
cold. The intercomm calmly announced "We have a major malfunction".
(No shit. I
know those guys are trained to stay calm in a state of emergency,
but those words sent a shiver up my spine, they were such an obvious
In a totally
unreal scene we could see the white trails from the solid rocket
boosters fork away from the original launch trail.
In absolute silence we watched huge glowing chunks of debris
shoot out. (I actually glanced towards the door to see how far I
had to run for shelter if we were going to get hit, though I knew
we were miles away.)
flare from the SRB ignites the external fuel tank.
When there was nothing left
in the sky we all staggered back into our offices. I can't adequately
describe the tension, distress and sorrow in that building that day.
People cried as they went about their duties as best they could, and
huddled together in groups around tv's and radios to hear the latest
word. We kept holding out hope that, somehow, the crew had survived
and would be picked up at sea.
of course. Though every possible safety precaution is taken there
comes a point where the crew can do nothing but sit tight and ride.
The cold that
morning had caused a rubber ring on the SRB to seal improperly.
One thing led to another and the fuel of the external tank was ignited
and exploded, flinging the solid rocket boosters away and destroying
the shuttle vehicle.
sat in his office, his gaze wandering about the room. Something
in the wastebasket caught
his attention and he picked it up. It was his note to Christa
McAuliffe asking for her
autograph that had come
back along with the photo.
had corrected his spelling and grammer.
Debris washes up
on Cocoa Beach in December, 1996 - almost exactly 10 years
after the disaster.
The crew of seven survived
the explosion but died upon impact with the ocean. The shuttle
program shut down for two years while the incident was investigated
and procedures reviewed. Hundreds of people lost their jobs at the
space center and an economic depression hit the whole area. (My
son and I actually ended up living in an abandoned houseboat at
a fish camp for a while.)
In 1988 the shuttle Discovery
launched in our return to flight. I returned as well and stayed
until 1997. It was never spoken out loud, but after Challenger we
always made a point of watching every launch - and we never left
our watch until after the 73 second mark and successful separation
of the boosters.
portrait of the STS 51-L crewmembers. In the back row Mission specialist
Ellison S. Onizuka, Teacher in Space Participant
Sharon Christa McAuliffe, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and Mission
specialist Judy Resnik. In the front row Pilot Mike
Smith, Commander Dick Scobee, and Mission specialist Ron McNair.
slipped the surly bonds of earth,
reached out, and touched the face of God."