My Challenger Story

Posted By on January 29, 2006

Challenger 73 seconds after liftoffSaturday morning, January 27, 1986, the Space Shuttle Challenger and seven astronauts prepared for a cold morning ride into space at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida; they didn’t launch. Those of patiently waiting on Cocoa Beach, including yours truly, were disapponted when we hear word of the postponed flight. Chilled to the bone I climbed back in my rented convertible and headed back to Orlando where my wife was taking the Florida State Pharmacy board. I was irritated not only because I didn’t have winter clothes, but I had taken an early drive just to corner a spot on the dune to set up my tripod and SLR with a long lens. (I recall, I also had our ‘giant’ video camera — by todays’ standards — hung on my shoulder.)

That week, most of Florida had been dogged by extrodinarily cold weather and on that particular morning anything above ground was caked in ice. The foilage surrounding our hotel looked like ice sculptures after the sprinkler systems morning routine. If it wasn’t so cold I probably would have taken a few photos as they were quite beautiful. I debated if I would go again on Saturday. I didn’t and instead tried to view it outside from Orlando. Sadly at 11:38 AM on the 28th, only 73 seconds after launch, the shuttle was blasted apart, smoke and eery contrails that zigzagged across the cold blue sky. All seven astronauts died in the explosion; the images shocked our nation and rattled NASA to its core. In a way it was good not to have been at the Cape to witness to such a tragedy, although the shocking event will still forever be etched in my memory.

On Saturday, the US Air Force honor guards placed a wreath at the Challenger Memorial Plaque, remembering the crew of the Challenger at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virgina. At Cape Kennedy, about 250 people gathered to remember the lost 20 years ago. Richard Scobee, the son of Dick Scobee, Challenger’s commander stated, “It’s been more than 20 years and I think about it every day.” He watched solemnly as his mother laid a wreath of roses and carnations at a memorial honoring all the fallen astronauts Saturday at Kennedy Space Center. “Our lives were shattered, but over the years that followed the families persevered with tremendous success,” June (Scobee) Rodgers said. “I believe those parents launched aboard Challenger would be proud of their children.”

In the months and years that followed, the Challenger accident was reviewed and the shuttle program underwent a complete safety and public relation rework. Confidence was shattered as the defect in an ‘O’ ring seal of the solid rocket booster was determined to be the cause. Experts concluded that the design itself was poor and that the cold weather experience on the Cape contributed to hardening of the gasket material. (BTW … the temperature was 36 degree at launch) Interestingly the contracted engineers working for NASA protested the launch when the temperatures were so cold, but their concerns were overruled.

In the end, it comes down to minimizing risk when pushing the envelope and as Dick Scobee’s widow explains, “Without risk, there’s no discovery, there’s no new knowledge, there’s no bold adventure. The greatest risk is to take no risk.”

The Challenger Crew:
– Dick Scobee, commander
– Mike Smith, pilot
– Ellison Onizuka, astronaut
– Judy Resnik, astronaut
– Ron McNair, astronaut
– Greg Jarvis, astronaut
– Christa McAuliffe, to be the first teacher in space

NASA and the space program has been knitted into my life while growing up and continues to be to this day; my daughter still plans on becoming an astronaut. In the 60’s I experienced the triumphs and tragedies of the space race and was witness to one of mans’ greatest accommplishments — that of landing a man on the moon. As we continue to explore space and the intricate engineering require for our space vehicles, I hope the hard lessons learned from disasters such as the Challenger will remind us to make safety a top priority.

NASA remembers link.

Comments

  • mike

    Nice write-up! I also like to follow the various projects going on at NASA. I watched the live coverage of Deep Impact and the landing of Star Dust. I also won a poster for the Star Dust project where the various scientists signed it.

    I recently read an interesting article about myths surrounding the Challenger. E.g., it didn’t really explode … see: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11031097/

  • You are too quick to read Mike … I’m still editting my mistakes. Should have read it before publishing. Oh well … thanks for the nice comment and link. Rich

Desultory - des-uhl-tawr-ee, -tohr-ee

  1. lacking in consistency, constancy, or visible order, disconnected; fitful: desultory conversation.
  2. digressing from or unconnected with the main subject; random: a desultory remark.