What Happened?

Flames from inside the booster rocket had escaped through the failed O-ring seal. They enlarged the small opening and grew into a monstrous blowtorch. The torch then slashed through the lower half of the external fuel tank that stored the liquid hydrogen. The lower half collapsed, with the entire tank following in swift disintegration.

The bottom strut attached to the right booster had broken away. The blazing rocket had swiveled on its upper strut and had sent its nose crashing through the skin of the tank. That had freed liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen to mix disastrously and ignite.

Where there had been only cold blue sky pierced by bright flame atop a climbing white smoke trail, there grew a hellish fireball. No explosion, just an instantly growing monster of fire where metal tore, where it shattered into burning jagged debris that would continue to climb before tumbling and cartwheeling through curving arcs until gravity commanded its downward fall.

Nearby, two corkscrew spears of white smoke spun twisting paths even higher, the rocket boosters flaming out of control. The instant fire in the sky continued to expand in a scattering of flaming debris, creating hundreds of burning and twisting fingers of smoke that appeared to be running from the terrible blast.

While eyes were focused on the burning chunks of Challenger fluttering and whirling toward the ocean, a hairline streak of red arched up and then over in a curving line. It would be long remembered. Challenger’s crew vessel with its seven astronauts was fleeing the flames and devastation.

In this ghastly moment, the very air over America’s spaceport burned. Thunder echoed and boomed downward. It kept echoing and booming for the longest minutes. We were hearing Challenger breaking and shredding itself into hundreds, then thousands, possibly millions of pieces while beneath this sky of ominous groans, thin wailing cries and screams rolled upward from Earth to where Challenger died.

Inside Mission Control near Houston, NASA commentator Steve Nesbitt followed his flight-mission script. He kept up his litany of progress, reporting the main engines were now burning at their full thrust of 104 percent. He continued to read his prepared notes to match flight times and progress. He was simply unaware of what had happened to Challenger.

“One minute and fifteen seconds, velocity two thousand nine hundred feet per second, altitude nine nautical miles, downrange distance seven nautical miles.”

Nearby, a flight controller gestured frantically. Nesbitt turned to see where the controller was pointing with such agitation. He stopped reading, disbelief gripping him like a giant fist. He was staring slack-jawed at the expanding fire cloud on the huge television screen before him, at the twisting smoke trails, and the flotsam of burning debris raining toward the ocean.

He slumped into his chair, embarrassed, and afraid for the crew. Most of them were his friends, and Steve Nesbitt was above all else a gentleman and a professional. He hurt as if the weight of Earth had been dropped in his lap.

Tears started crowding into his eyes, but he was on duty. Nesbitt still had his job to do. He shook off the helpless feeling, rallied his senses, and keyed his microphone. “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation.”

He simply could not explain what had really happened. He had to report only what he knew for certain. “Obviously,” he heard himself saying, “a major malfunction.”

There was nothing left to do. He leaned forward and turned off his mike.

Back in Launch Control at the Cape, Hugh Harris fared no better than Steve Nesbitt. He was stunned, in shock, staring vacant-eyed through the big window. Even as he searched the tumbling, burning debris and corkscrewing smoke trails for some sign the crew was still alive, the scene before him refused to penetrate his own reality, that there could be that much fury and destruction.

It was…unbelievable. So inadequate a word! What made it all the more terrible was the tremendous personal emotion he felt for Challenger’s astronauts. Harris had shared with these people a professional and personal alliance. He stood in his emotional cocoon of shock and kept asking himself how in the name of God this could have happened.

On the roof observation deck of the Launch Control Center, in the brilliant sunlight beneath the pockmarked sky, NASA escorts were doing everything possible to move the distraught, sobbing families away from the horrifying spillage of charred debris raining downward to ocean waters.

The children of Challenger’s pilot Mike Smith stood rooted to where they had been when the blast split the heavens.

“I want my father!” they wailed as one voice. “I want my father! He told us it was safe!” Then they lost their voices in tears and choking misery.

In the bank where she worked in Cocoa Beach, my wife Jo and her colleagues stood watching Challenger’s remains fall toward the ocean. No one had a clear understanding of what had just happened, but Jo had been around space flight long enough to know something was terribly wrong.

Family friend Loverne Holt drove her car up to the drive-in window, and Jo waited on her. Loverne’s car radio was blaring with an uninformed news type telling his listeners the astronauts had aborted the flight, and they had been ordered to return to the Cape and land.

“I don’t think so,” Jo said quietly. “I don’t think so.”

Harry Kolcum, veteran editor of Aviation Week, stood in front of the press site’s bleachers, staring at something he knew he would think about, and have dreams about, for the rest of his life. He didn’t really want to call the office, to talk to anyone about what had just happened, but he had no choice. He turned and started walking toward his phone in the press dome.

Harry was a gentle man, a religious man. “God, be merciful,” he prayed quietly.

Reuter’s Mary Bubb left the stands with that terrible image in her mind. She knew Challenger’s loss would be with her forever.

Along the way radio reporter Mercer Livermore came running up to her. “Did you see the faces? The faces, I’ll never forget the faces.”

Veteran ABC space reporter Bill Larson was driving through the streets of downtown Chicago. Suddenly his radio’s program was interrupted with the following bulletin: “The space shuttle Challenger has exploded in the skies over Cape Canaveral. There’s no immediate word about the fate of the seven astronauts on board. It’s apparently a major disaster.” Immediately Larson’s mind took him back to the Apollo 1 fire, back to the loss of his friends Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

He quickly drove his car to the curb, and in spite of the heavy traffic and blaring horns, he stopped. “Dammit!” he pounded his steering wheel and screamed. “Not again! Damn! Not again!”

Inside the Associated Press trailer, veteran aerospace editor Howard Benedict worked furiously to get out the story to the world as quickly as possible. He was dictating over the phone to the AP’s New York desk. His first paragraph was already available as a news bulletin in every newspaper and network and magazine in the world, and he was into his second paragraph:

“There was no immediate indication on the fate of the crew, but it appeared that nobody could have survived that fireball in the sky.”

Howard felt a chill pass over his perspiration-soaked body, and he paused for a long moment—a long moment he didn’t have time to spare.

Howard Benedict needed to cry.

Next door, inside the United Press International wire-service trailer, aerospace writer Bill Harwood was madly typing copy into his computer terminal. Harwood was fast and he was good, and his copy was speeding over his worldwide wire as quickly as possible when he suddenly stopped, fighting back tears. They’re dead, he thought soberly; they’re all dead.

In the press site’s broadcast studios, ABC, CBS, CNN, and NBC were all on the air live.

Tom Brokaw, just possibly the greatest of the network anchors, was in the nation’s Capitol, and he raced to our NBC Washington studios to anchor Challenger’s coverage.

I was on the phone with news editor Jim Wilson, and before we went on the air I told him to give me a couple of seconds. I pulled the phone down by my side and focused on the destruction in the sky above me. I kept looking for Challenger. I kept hoping it would reappear out of that growing fireball—hoping, just possibly, it could escape and make a pancake landing on the Atlantic. No Challenger. No miracle. They were gone…

I bit my lip, wiped the wetness from my face, and told Jim, “Let’s go…”

Wilson sprung into action. He had never been better. He called the normally, unflappable Cameron Swayzee into the studio to anchor the hotline bulletin.

A nervous, out-of-breath Swayzee took his cue: “This is an NBC News Hotline Report. This is correspondent Cameron Swayzee at NBC News Headquarters in New York.

“There has been a major malfunction problem with the Space Shuttle Challenger which moments ago lifted off from Cape Canaveral. Details are not certain yet, but let’s go to Cape Canaveral and try to bring in correspondent Jay Barbree, who’s standing by.

“Jay, are you there, and what can you tell us?”

“Cameron, we’re looking at a disaster in the blue skies above this spaceport—a major disaster. The Space Shuttle Challenger, only a minute or so after liftoff, exploded. We have nothing but fire and debris above us…”

It was obvious the astronauts were dead but in journalism, in reporting death, you wait. You must wait.

The disaster was only minutes old as thousands of journalists were seen running for planes, headed for the Cape, and NBC News was no exception. We were moving troops in from our Miami Bureau as well as New York City, and in the New York newsroom they were madly searching for material, new information, any kind of facts about what had burned in the Cape Canaveral sky, but NASA had simply slammed their information door shut, not one syllable of official information coming from anywhere.

All videotapes, film, and pictures of the disaster were being gathered on news chief Hugh Harris’s orders, and as the bucket of information ran lower and lower, NBC-TV decided they needed me on the air with Tom Brokaw. They needed to reach back into the history of the space program, and I could take them there; more important, I had the sources that could reach through NASA’s closed information door and tell NBC’s viewers why Challenger was lost. This was the time when solid reporting counted; not capped teeth, good looks, slick vowels and consonants.

The out-of-breath television producer in the next studio, Kelly Rickenbacher, came bursting into the radio booth. “They want you on television,” he said.

I stared back at him. “I’m on radio, Kelly, I can’t leave my assignment.”

The television producer could not believe what he was hearing. “But they want you on television,” he shouted, his tone implying television was obviously more important than radio.

“Let me check with the radio desk,” I said, turning to pick up the open line with New York.

“Hell, no, you can’t leave radio for television,” Jim Farley screamed the words down the line. “You’re our man. We need you there.”

Jim Farley was vice president of Radio Network News, and he went on to tell me he would take the heat for his decision. I explained this to Kelly, and the television producer left madder than a rained-on setting hen only to return two minutes later to tell me Larry Grossman, the president of NBC News, was ordering me to move to television. I told the radio desk I wasn’t going to disobey Mr. Grossman, and soon I was running back and forth between the radio and television studios, scouring every available detail from my sources. Tom Brokaw and I were beating the pants off the competition, and in spite of the major tragedy it felt good.

That evening, the executives in New York decided I had the best chance of breaking the story of what caused Challenger’s accident, and they sent in all the help we could use. The next morning I hit the ground running.

I locked myself in my office and started making phone calls, talking with the grunts that turned the wrenches on the launch pad as well as supervisors and management types. I kept getting the same. No facts. Nothing. Just opinion.

I kept getting the same until one source made an off-hand comment about a concern raised the day before the launch by a Morton Thiokol engineer in Brigham City, Utah.

Thiokol built the solid rocket boosters for the space shuttle, and after further research, I learned the concerned person was senior rocket booster engineer Roger Boisjoly. Boisjoly had raised questions about earlier problems with the joints between booster segments, and Thiokol managers decided to alert managers at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Marshall oversaw the booster’s design and production, and Thiokol decided to tell NASA management that the cold weather could seriously affect the shuttle booster’s joints.

Boisjoly’s concern was with the synthetic rubber O-rings designed to seal the joints and prevent hot gases and flames from escaping. On several shuttle flights, the primary O-ring had suffered severe hot gas erosion, and in a few instances minor erosion was found on the secondary O-ring seals. The problem was simple: The lower the outdoor temperature, the greater the erosion.

I learned that five months before Challenger’s accident, on August 19, 1985, Marshall Space Flight Center and Thiokol officials briefed NASA headquarters for the first time on the history and potential of the O-ring problem. They had not recommended halting flights, saying that continuing to fly was an acceptable risk while the joints were being redesigned.

Acceptable risk?

I phoned Cecil Houston, Marshall Space Flight Center’s manager at the Cape, and asked him what in the hell was going on.

Cecil told me he had chaired two teleconferences the night before launch, and everyone decided the O-rings would not be a problem. “Everybody signed off on it, including Thiokol,” he said. “We agreed we should fly.”

“With the freeze we had you guys didn’t think the O-rings would be a problem?”

“Naw,” he assured me. “It was one of the engines.”

“You know that for sure?”

“No, not yet,” he insisted, “but we’re looking. Something came loose.”

“Like a fan?”

“Could be,” Houston agreed, but quickly added, “Don’t go with that yet, Jay. That’s what we think happened. I’ll let you know when we’ve got something.”

Cecil Houston was a damn good engineer and a devoted manager. I knew he would be the last person to deliberately put an astronaut at risk, but nevertheless I could not believe the lack of concern about the O-rings.

I thanked Cecil and decided to phone a longtime friend who’d been brought to the space program by Gus Grissom before any astronaut crawled into a spaceship: Sam Beddingfield, the man who had retired only a couple of weeks before as deputy director of Shuttle Projects Management—the same Sam Beddingfield who told Gus Grissom he didn’t need a parachute because he wouldn’t have time to put it on. The same Sam Beddingfield who Gus told, “Put the parachute in my Mercury capsule anyway. It’ll give me something to do until I hit.”

Sam Beddingfield’s experience and contacts were definitely what I needed. If anyone could find out what the brass on headquarters’ fourth floor was up to, it was Sam.

I grabbed the phone, dialed, and listened to the rings. “Hello.”

“Sam, this is Jay Barbree.”

“Yeah, Jay, what’s up?”

“I was sitting here wondering what’s going on down at headquarters this morning. Especially with senior management on the fourth floor?”

“I know what they’re doing,” Sam grunted. “They’re running around, pointing fingers, protecting their asses.”

“Most likely,” I laughed, quickly adding, “Why don’t you go down there and check it out?”

“I could,” he smiled. “I still have a senior management badge.”

“You want a job?”

“Doing what?”

“Working for NBC News as a news analyst.”

“That sounds good. It’d keep me outta the pool halls.”

“It would at that,” I said, laughing. “Take a drive down to the fourth floor, check out what all your old buddies are talking about, and swing by the press site. If you’ll work for us through the Challenger coverage, I’ll clear it with Don Browne.”

“Who’s he?”

“Our Miami bureau chief. He’s in charge.”

“I’ll think about it, Jay, and I’ll take a drive by my old office.”

“Do that, Sam. Keep in touch.”

I put the phone down, suddenly feeling I was making progress. This just could work!

For the next twenty-four hours Sam Beddingfield parked himself in the executive offices at NASA headquarters, visiting old friends, listening to everything being learned about the accident. Most of the NASA managers simply thought Sam was still on the job and in the middle of the afternoon, January 30, 1986, two days after Challenger disintegrated nine miles above the Atlantic surf, Sam called me.

“I’ve got it,” he said flatly.

“The cause of the failure?” I asked anxiously.

“A rupture in a field joint splice.”

“An O-ring leak?”


“That’s for sure?”

“For sure.”

“How do they know?”

“They have pictures.”

“Whatta you mean?” I asked, my heart now racing.

“Pictures of the leak,” Sam explained. “They can see the flame blowing out of the sucker like a blowtorch.”

“Where did the pictures come from?”

“From a fixed engineering camera north of the pad.”

“Away from our cameras? Where we couldn’t see?” I asked.

“That’s it.”

“What did the torch do, burn into the tank?”

“Yep,” he said. “They think it burned through the insulation and everything blew.”

“We can’t see it on our launch tape?”

“No way.”

“Can you get your hands on a copy of that tape?”

Sam laughed. “You trying to get me shot?”

“This is great, Sam,” I told him. “Great work.”

I asked Sam to educate me on the booster segments, on the O-rings and the booster joints called “field joint splices,” and he told me how they were stacked here in the Vehicle Assembly Building. Once I was comfortable with what I needed to know, I thanked Sam again and told him to come by the NBC building when he could.

I phoned a confidential source at the Marshall Space Flight Center, and he confirmed what Sam had said. This was what we call in journalism a firm, second source, and I looked at my watch. It was 4:00 P.M. Eastern time, two-and-a-half hours to my buddy Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News, and suddenly I was playing mind games. I wanted Tom to have the story, but the next NBC newscast was the 5:00 P.M. radio network hourly, and, dammit, I thought, should I go with it now, before someone else breaks the story?

I was obviously sitting on the biggest story of my life, and I knew I had to dump it in Don Browne’s lap.

I left my office and went in to see Don. He sat talking on the phone, pretty obviously just chatting, and I held a finger before his eyes.

Annoyed, he looked up. “Just a minute, Jay.”

Not now, play big shit another time, Don, I thought to myself, and moved right into his face. “Now,” I said. “Get off the phone.”

Don Browne was temporarily in shock. He couldn’t believe I had spoken to him in that manner. He scanned my face, suddenly realizing I had something important to tell him. “I’ll call you back later,” he said, hanging up the phone.

I moved to within a foot of his face. “I got it.”

“Got what?”

“The story, the cause of the blowup, dammit.”

Don took a deep breath. “Let’s go somewhere else to talk,” he ordered, standing up and heading for the door.

Outside, I laid it out for him. “Let’s go into the radio booth and lock the door,” Don said. “We’ll call New York in private.”

Once out of earshot of everyone, Don phoned Executive Vice President of News John Lane and Vice President Joe Angotti. We filled them in, and Lane asked, “Who are your sources, Jay?”

Disbelieving that anyone in journalism would ask another journalist to reveal his or her sources, I took a couple of seconds, and answered: “With all due respect, Mr. Lane, I do not reveal my sources.”

“Well,” he said, “we have a policy, we have to know who the sources are before we put something of this magnitude on the air.”

I was stunned. Was I witnessing the death of journalism here? I stood firm. “Mr. Lane,” I began my answer, “I’ve been with this company for nearly twenty-eight years. I have broken my share of exclusives on NBC. I have never put any story on this network that wasn’t gathered under the guidelines of solid journalism. You have my reputation. If that’s not good enough, let me break it on radio’s 5:00 P.M. hourly newscast. I’m sure Jim Farley will be most happy to put the story on the air.”

“No,” he said, “we want the story on Brokaw’s show, but we have to be sure.”

“Dammit, John, I’m sure,” Don Browne spoke up. “Jay has the best sources here. He’s proved it time and again. Now let’s get Brokaw’s people on the phone, and let’s break it.”

I put the phone down. “You argue it out with them,” I told Don. “When you have their decision, call me.”

Don Browne argued and won. Tom Brokaw and I broke the story, the biggest of my life, and I did it with the New York Times’s reporter Bill Broad standing at my feet, taking notes.

The Challenger disaster would later be voted the number-one story of 1986, and I received a write-up in the New York Times, in the Washington Post, in Newsweek, in Time magazine, and on all the wire services. Larry King in his USA Today column wrote, “Jay Barbree of NBC News is arguably the best correspondent to ever cover the space program.”

I could not help but notice that the breaking of the Challenger story failed to bring me a single nomination for any journalism award—a nomination generally entered by one’s company, and, even though the great news producer Jim Kitchell had gotten our unit an Emmy for the Apollo landings in 1969, in 1986 no grunt in the field was to be nominated for anything. Our industry was obviously on a slippery slide into show business. Journalism was an afterthought. Our future was the star system, where the greed of the world’s multimillion-dollar news anchors would suck a network’s news budget dry.

Two months later I was selected as one of the semifinalists in the Journalist in Space Project. Our number was 1,769 at the beginning, and those of us who were left in the final stages had to go before a selection board made up of six journalism professors and five peers. We were questioned by a live TV interviewer, and when it was over, there were eight of us left in the Southeast—five in the Washington Press Corps, two in Florida, and one in Virginia. My boss Jim Farley was proud. He was the one member of NBC News’s senior management who had been helping me pull the Journalist-in-Space wagon down the road.

In March 1986, I settled in for what was ahead. There would be two-and-a-half years of covering NASA’s recovery from the Challenger accident and “return to flight,” and all the while I had to keep mind and body in shape for the Journalist in Space project.

It was a time of little sleep and many frustrations. Only minutes after Challenger’s remains tumbled into the sea, the largest naval search-and-salvage operation ever was launched. Six thousand people, fifty-two aircraft, thirty-one ships, three submarines, and five robot subs were used. The real pressure began the day civilian divers discovered the astronauts’ remains. They were in Challenger’s crew cabin in one hundred feet of water seventeen miles northeast of the Cape. Every news editor in the world wanted to know if and when Challenger’s crew had been recovered, and the American public wanted to know when each astronaut had been reclaimed from the sea for interment by their family.

It was a time your best simply wasn’t good enough.

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