TWENTY-ONE

Challenger: A Disaster

In late January 1986, a frigid weather front rolled southward out of Canada and headed straight for Florida. The rare, bone-chilling freeze gripped unsuspecting palms and palmettos, stiffened and cracked rolling groves of citrus, and froze Florida’s sprawling Kennedy Space Center to a slow crawl. The spaceport—making use of the latest electronic miracles and a step ahead of the cutting-edge of technology—had never felt such cold.

During the predawn hours of January 28, temperatures fell below freezing. Frost appeared on car windshields and ice fog formed above canals, swamps, lakes, and saltwater lagoons. Alarmed forecasters predicted a hard freeze in the 20s by sunrise.

Not a single tropical insect moved in the frigid stiffness. Birds accustomed to warm ocean breezes huddled in stunned groups. Fire and smoke rose from smudge pots set across Florida’s citrus belt in last-ditch attempts to save the budding produce.

Along the beaches beneath the towering rocket gantries, only the sparkling white form of the Space Shuttle Challenger appeared in dazzling floodlights, its metal and glass and exotic alloys unfeeling of the arctic air—the great ship of space rising like a monstrous ice sculpture above its steel foundation. Finally, night slipped away and sunrise brought the first hope of warmth. Challenger’s seven astronauts appeared on the launch pad. Their number included the courageous social-science teacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe, who had a smile big enough to adorn any magazine cover. She was a brilliant selection by the National Teachers’ Union for the coveted role of the planet’s “first citizen in space.”

She had emerged from the enthusiastic wave of applicants giving all to become the one individual selected for NASA’s acclaimed Teacher in Space Project. Those who wished her well went far beyond her contemporaries and the everyday citizens who prayed for her success. Millions of schoolchildren eagerly awaited her departure from Earth.

McAuliffe wasn’t going into space as a tested scientific or engineering member of the crew. She was leaving Earth to command the attention of the world, including awestruck American schoolchildren. Having squirmed beneath congressional brickbats and attempts to slash NASA’s budget, even to do away with the superbly engineered Space Shuttle program, the space agency stoked the Teacher in Space Project as the perfect response to dull the political ax held at its head.

Citizen-in-space Christa McAuliffe is seen here (third from right) with her crew days before the seven would be lost in the Challenger accident. (Michael R. Brown/Florida Today).

You could scrub an astronaut, cancel a mission, condemn a fleet—but you did not mess with Apple Pie, Mom, and Our Sainted Teacher.

“This is a beautiful day to fly,” Challenger’s commander, Dick Scobee, said as he stopped on the walkway to the entry hatch. To the veteran astronaut, the cold, cloudless sky was perfect—conditions that experienced pilots called severe clear. It was true: On such a clear day you could see forever, and from nineteen stories above ground the crew beheld a sparkling, shining string of ocean breakers in the curving surf along the Cape’s coastline to the south.

One by one, the space-farers donned their helmets and, with the assistance of the specialist, climbed through the hatch into the deep and wide recesses of the crew compartment. As McAuliffe prepared to enter Challenger, a member of the closeout crew presented the teacher with a red apple. It was a nice public-relations touch for our television audience, including the families of the astronauts who sat in warmth three miles distant in their VIP suite.

But in spite of the public-relations portrait being painted, Challenger was in every respect a contained iceberg. That the presence of so much ice was a clear danger to the launch team was demonstrated when the countdown reached its standard ten-minute hold at T-minus nine minutes in the count. This time the call was heard loud and clear.

“Hold!”

Launch Control explained the delay. The standard hold of ten minutes would be extended. The count would be held at the T-minus nine–minute mark for hours, if necessary, until the temperature rose to 40 degrees. Everyone looked at the sun, beseeched its warming rays.

But the warmth of the sun on the outside could not solve the problem of the critical O-ring seals inside the solid rocket boosters. Without the direct rays of the sun, they would stay cold, hard, and brittle until the needed hours of warm outside temperatures slowly thawed the inner workings of the booster. Any first-year engineering student should have known that—known as well the fact that the more frozen the O-rings were, the longer you had to wait for them to thaw.

The synthetic rubber O-rings’ design purpose was simple enough: to seal the joints so tight they would prevent violently hot gases from escaping as spears of flame. It was a hard task for any piece of equipment, and the booster engineers felt helpless. For months, they had been studying the O-ring seal problem. They knew a disaster was coming, but no one stepped forward and said, “Stop this train until it’s fixed.”

At about 11:00 A.M. Eastern time, Launch Control notified the Challenger crew that conditions were definitely warming up. The launch team anticipated resuming the count shortly.

“All right!” came the enthusiastic response from Challenger’s commander Dick Scobee.

At Mission Control in Houston, flight director Jay Greene polled his team for their final status report. At the Cape, launch director Gene Thomas ran through his checklist items with his team in launch control. It was a familiar and critical litany of last-moment review and checks.

Every response was “Go!” Not a single call to stop.

Inside Challenger’s crew cabin, the pilots, Dick Scobee and Mike Smith, went with precision through their final checks.

All seven astronauts locked their helmet visors in place. They rechecked their seat harnesses one final time. Every man and woman was strapped in securely. Commander Scobee told his crew, “Welcome to space, guys.”

In Launch Control, NASA commentator Hugh Harris reported the countdown’s final moments. His words spoken into the microphone that carried his official report to every media outlet worldwide. He watched the numbers shining brightly before him. Green and flashing numbers: They gave him an update with each passing second of the count while a television monitor showed him Challenger looming high on its icy launch pad.

But the NASA commentator wasn’t that comfortable relying on electronic vision. He found himself turning often in his seat to peer at the shuttle through the huge glass window trusting only his own eyes that all continued smoothly toward that critical moment of engine ignition.

Hugh Harris had been the “voice of Launch Control” for most of the previous twenty-four shuttle flights. As chief of information for the Kennedy Space Center, he knew the drill by heart and felt comfortable with the routine.

Last-second events kept Harris busy, providing a steady stream of information to the outside world. Through the news outlets carrying his running commentary, Harris’s microphone was the public’s link to the event.

“T-minus four minutes and counting…”

As the countdown rolled, the astronauts’ families were hurried from their VIP suite to an observation deck on the roof of Launch Control.

Ignition began as a flash of coruscating fire.

“T-minus ten, nine, eight…we have main engine start…”

Challenger came to life.

Searing orange light appeared in a swift rippling of unleashed power. This was the moment of the Shuttle’s savage fire birth. The light was so intense it forced tears to the eyes of many of the onlookers. Three engine bells, now lost in the controlled tornado of burning rocket fuel, cascaded their violent fire down the curving flame tubes. White clouds snapped into being as fire and water begat shrieking steam. Challenger shook, vibrating its flanks. A blizzard appeared about the huge fuel tank as thunderous vibration ejected the ice storm that had gathered on the outer-skin of the fifteen-story-tall external tank.

The main engines screamed in a hoarse bellow, waiting for the computers to sense that all three engines were running properly and had built to the required liftoff thrust.

They had. Relays clicked. Computers gave the signal to ignite and release the hold-down bolts of the two giant solid rocket boosters.

Two enormous fire plumes snapped into existence, gushed downward, and spattered away in every direction, raging, uncontainable.

“Five, four, three, two, one,” the words rolled strongly from the voice of Hugh Harris.

The giant spaceship kicked free of its launch pad and spread its flame in a visible blast, burning ever brighter, ever fiercer.

“Liftoff! We have a liftoff of the twenty-fifth Space Shuttle mission, and it has cleared the tower.”

Hugh Harris’s words were now barely audible over Challenger’s thunder, over the screams and shouts of the thousands of onlookers crying the prayer of the astronauts, “GO, GO! GO, GO!”

Almost at the same instant Harris spoke those words, the shock wave from the running engines arrived at the press site and the VIP bleachers three miles distant. The deck trembled and astronaut family slammed against family on the roof observation deck. Sound crashed and rolled, tumbling and shaking ground and water and air…

On board Challenger, the seven astronauts felt the Space Shuttle come alive as its three main engines swiveled in a final pre-ignition check and then erupted in fire. Crew commander Dick Scobee shouted, “There they go, guys!”

“Allll riiight!” came the shout from veteran astronaut Judy Resnik.

“Here we go!” laughed pilot Mike Smith.

Christa McAuliffe shouted personal words into her tape recorder for her students. She gripped her seat tightly, heard the booster rockets roar to life, and felt Challenger leap from its pad.

While back on the roof deck of the Launch Control Center, the astronauts’ spouses and children stood stunned and awed, their bones vibrating from the mighty energy of Challenger. Sound engulfed and embraced them, a sonic juggernaut heralding a magnificent birth. They reached out, faces wet with tears, and sought each other’s hands. Fingers gripped tightly, unknowingly watching their loved ones permanently leave this Earth.

At the moment of solid rocket ignition, something sinister happened. Barely apparent beside the opening fiery blast, a puff of black smoke spat forth from the lower joint of the right booster. Almost as quickly as it appeared, it was gone. Much later, examination of every frame of film and every inch of videotape would reveal that the smoke spewed forth from a sudden, tiny gap. It was a death warrant.

The freeze had robbed the critical O-ring of its ability to flex, to expand and seal, and when the joint of the booster rotated, it created that tiny but critical gap. Searing gases rammed through and rushed past the breach. For two-and-a-half seconds, black smoke jetted out. Then, instantly, it vanished. For within the curving flanks of the rocket, aluminum oxide particles created by the burning fuel miraculously plugged the leak. Flame no longer escaped.

Unaware they were in mortal danger the astronauts waxed enthusiastic, shouting with excitement as Challenger hammered its way higher and higher.

“Go, you mother!” Mike Smith shouted as the Shuttle charged ahead, heading faster into space.

“LVLH,” Judy Resnik announced, reminding the two pilots to check Challenger’s ADI (attitude determination indicator) on the cockpit panel for the ship’s local vertical and local horizontal attitude.

“Ohhhkaaaaay,” Dick Scobee agreed, grinning.

Sound and fury washed through our studio windows at the press site. Lights, cameras, and anchor platforms shook as walls rattled and floors rumbled. Beyond the window, red became orange, leaving behind a dazzling trail of golden fire.

Something told me to grab my telephone and move outside.

No matter how many of these shattering launches you have seen, no matter how many times you have felt the body-shaking impact, the shock waves rippling your clothes and skin, you never feel at ease. I phoned editor Jim Wilson at the New York radio network desk. Space Shuttle launches had become so safe and ordinary that even with the first citizen passenger on board, the only broadcast news service covering it live were our friends at CNN. This made me uneasy. Something told me all was not well.

Veteran space reporter Mary Bubb of the Reuters News Agency sat in the press site’s grandstands with tightened fists. She tilted her head slowly to keep the climbing Shuttle with its attached booster rockets in clear view. Unthinking, she groped for the hand of the reporter seated next to her.

Mary was an original. A pioneer female reporter, she had been ill for months, but she was dedicated, undaunted by her ailing body. She had been covering space launches from the time the first rockets tried desperately to lift from their pads, and she would never be absent for any launch, especially a Shuttle.

Today, something felt different. It was not the chill of the morning’s freeze that swept her body.

“I’m afraid,” she said, her voice barely heard over the battering vibrations and crackling roar. “I’m afraid for them.”

High above Challenger’s launch pad, the wind howled, blowing horizontally with hurricane speed of eighty-four miles per hour—some of the fiercest ever recorded for a Shuttle ascent.

The big spaceship accelerated with determined power into the area of Max Q, where its building speed created shock waves from the resisting air through which it had to fly. Inside the Shuttle the astronauts felt the side loads, felt Challenger meeting the invisible forces.

Space Shuttles had flown through high winds before. “Yeah,” Dick Scobee announced in recognition of the sudden shaking, “it’s a little hard to see out my window.”

It was a moment with far greater impact than anyone could have known, for this mission carried with it a terrible flaw.

When the side loads of the winds smacked into the right booster, they struck an already weakened rocket. The winds were physical impacts. They jarred loose the aluminum oxide particles that at launch had sealed the lower joint where the O-rings had failed. Now the aluminum oxides broke up and spat away from the booster.

There was nothing left to hold back the raging fire and enormous pressure. A tongue of dazzling flame burst through the joint opening, creating a fearsome blowtorch of immense power precisely fifty-eight seconds into the flight.

No one in the crew cabin knew what was happening.

“Okay, we’re throttling down,” Scobee called out as he began the reducing the power of the main engines. This would safely diminish the howling thrust behind them as Challenger knifed its way through the combination of powerful shear winds and maximum aerodynamic pressure.

Then, as suddenly as they had entered, they were through Max Q and commander Dick Scobee went back to full power, throttling the engines to full thrust.

“Feel the mother go!” yelled Mike Smith.

“Woooooohooooo!” another crew member shouted, swept up in the acceleration.

“Thirty-five thousand going through one point five,” Smith reported.

Challenger was now seven miles high and booming past one-and-a-half times the speed of sound.

“Reading four-eight-six on mine,” Scobee acknowledged.

Smith agreed with the routine airspeed check. “Yep, that’s what I’ve got, too.”

Scobee heard Mission Control report his three main engines were again running fine at full throttle. Every instrument reading of the Shuttle’s flight and power systems was transmitted automatically, in real time, to Houston.

Mission Control kept up its steady monitoring, telling the pilots everything was “Go!”

No one knew the fiery blowtorch far below the crew cabin was already ripping apart the right booster while the crew worked smoothly, flawlessly.

“Roger, go at throttle up,” reported Scobee. His steady voice amazed the world audience.

Suddenly a sheet of intense flame swept swiftly over Mike Smith’s window.

The pilot’s seat was on the right side of Challenger, nearest to the disintegrating booster rocket. In whatever instant of time was available to Mike Smith, he knew something terrible was happening. He had just enough time to utter, “Uh-oh!”

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