Thursday, January 28, 2016

I remember the Space Shuttle Challenger

I remember the Space Shuttle Challenger. I watched her first liftoff on television and watched her final flight in person.

On January 28, 1986, I was a young engineer at a defense contractor in Palm Bay, Florida, about 30 miles south of Cape Canaveral. We would either go to the roof of the building or into the parking lot to watch whenever a Space Shuttle launch was scheduled. Since this was just before lunch time, several of us planned to watch from the parking lot and then go to a nearby fast food joint to eat. It was bitter cold for Florida that morning (in the 20s, well below the temperature for any previous shuttle launch -- but we didn't know that). We had one "newbie" with us, a new grad who had just started work the day before.

We checked our watches and when 11:38 rolled around we began to tell the newbie where to look for the shuttle over the tree line. A few seconds after liftoff Challenger was high enough that we could see her. We were telling the newbie to watch for the solid rocket booster (SRB) separation when the ball of fire and smoke erupted around the shuttle and the plumes of the two SRBs continued on, forming some sort of perverted "Y" in the sky.

We immediately rushed to a car and turned on a radio. The station that normally carried launch coverage was silent and then we heard the announcer, "Obviously a major malfunction." Some two or three minutes later we felt a rumble in the car. We didn't realize at first that it was the sound of Challenger exploding.

We were stunned. We all had worked on contracts associated in one way or the other with the space program and we felt this loss personally. I can't say what we did for the rest of the day but I remember our group leader had a little black and white television in his office. We all clustered around it to watch news coverage.

This was the last manned space launch I watched in person. A couple of months later NASA launched a Delta rocket to deploy a weather satellite. I went up to the Cape to watch this one. Problems after liftoff forced the flight safety officer to destruct the launch vehicle a minute or so after liftoff. That was the last unmanned launch I watched in person.

Today marks 30 years since the loss of the Challenger. In that time we have lost another shuttle, Columbia broke up on reentry after an otherwise successful 16 day mission in 2003. I had moved on to another job and another state by then but it still hit hard.

Challenger was not intended as a flight vehicle. It was originally built as structural test article STA-099, delivered on February 4, 1978. After testing NASA determined it would cost less to convert STA-099 to full flight status than the original plan to convert Enterprise, OV-101. Rockwell converted STA-099 to a fully rated orbital vehicle, OV-099, from 1979 to 1982. Challenger's first orbital flight, STS-6, launched on April 4, 1983. STS-6 deployed the first TDRS satellite and was the first shuttle flight to conduct a spacewalk. Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base on April 9, 1983.

Challenger flew nine missions without incident. Its tenth mission, STS-51L, launched on January 28, 1986. It featured the first Teacher in Space, Christa McAuliffe. The Teacher in Space Project was intended "to inspire students, honor teachers, and spur interest in mathematics, science, and space exploration. The project would carry teachers into space as Payload Specialists (non-astronaut civilians), who would return to their classrooms to share the experience with their students." School children across the country watched the live feed of the shuttle launch and explosion.

Source NASA Human Space Flight Gallery,
The crew of STS-51L was:

Historical Sources:

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