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 us patiently waiting on Cocoa Beach, including yours truly, were disappointed when we heard the 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 boards. I was irritated not only because I didn’t have winter clothes, but because I took the 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 today’s’ standards — hung on my shoulder.)

That week, most of Florida had been dogged by extraordinarily cold weather and on that particular morning everything above ground was caked in ice. The foliage that surrounded our hotel looked like ice sculptures after the sprinkler systems morning routine. If it would not have been so cold, I probably would have taken a few photos as the “ice sculpture” was quite beautiful. I debated if I would go again the next day on Saturday – I didn’t. Instead, I tried to view it outside while in Orlando.

Sadly, at 11:38 AM on January 28th only 73 seconds after launch, the shuttle was blown apart; smoke and eery contrails that zigzagged across the cold blue sky. All seven astronauts died in the explosion and the images shocked our nation, as well as rattled NASA to its core. In a way, I was glad not to have been at the Cape to witness such a tragedy. Like the images of 9/11, the visual included above is 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, Virginia. 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 experienced on the Cape contributed to hardening of the gasket material (BTW … the temperature was 36 degrees 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 have 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 mankind’s’ greatest accomplishments — 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.


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.
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