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51-L - The Challenger Disasterx
__All photos obtained from the NASA archives

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In 1986 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.
Astronauts exit the O&C building on their way to the launch pad.

I worked 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 part.

Intercomms 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.

Christa McAuliffe (TISP)
Sharon Christa McAuliffe

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!

Bud 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.

January was 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.

Bud 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.

January 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!

Ice on 51-L launch complex.

Ice on 51-L launch complex.
Ice on the STS 51-L launch complex.

We figured 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 launch.



Launch of the Challenger

Launch of the Challenger
Launch of the Challenger
Launch of mission 51-L.

We stood 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 understatement.)

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.)



SRB flareout

SRB separation
Flying debris
Falling debris
A 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.

They wern't, 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.

Bud 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.

Christa had corrected his spelling and grammer.

Debris on Cocoa Beach, 1996.
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.

The crew of 51-L

Official 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.

"They slipped the surly bonds of earth,
reached out, and touched the face of God."

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All photos on this page obtained from the NASA archives.