Thirty years ago this week, America witnessed a tragedy: the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger in the blue skies over Florida. The doomed shuttle touched us like we have never been touched before because along with the tragic loss of astronauts, a teacher was on board. What follows is the Miami Herald’s initial coverage of the unfolding events, a news story and then a personal account of an education reporter who witnessed the explosion from Cape Canaveral. What are your memories?
The space shuttle Challenger exploded 72 seconds after a spectacular launch Tuesday morning, disintegrating 10 miles off the Florida coast and killing a crew of seven, including Christa McAuliffe, America's first teacher in space.
Hours after the worst space disaster in history, NASA scientists hadn't the slightest idea what had caused the first fatal in-air accident in 56 U.S. manned missions.
Early speculation, based on fuzzy television pictures, centered on the shuttle's giant external fuel tank, loaded with 526,000 gallons of highly explosive liquid hydrogen and oxygen.
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But NASA, normally a fountain of information, stopped talking late Tuesday, denying requests for interviews with space experts and astronauts.
"We will not speculate as to the specific cause of the explosion based on that footage, " said Jesse Moore, NASA's top shuttle administrator. A NASA investigating board will conduct a "careful review" of all data "before we can reach any conclusions, " he said. Moore said he did not know how long the investigation might last.
"We've never had a tragedy like this, " said President Reagan, who postponed for a week Tuesday night's State of the Union address. In a short televised speech at 5 p.m., Reagan said, "We mourn seven heroes . . . They, the Challenger Seven, were pioneers."
Addressing America's schoolchildren, Reagan said, "The future doesn't belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave." The space program will continue, he said, as will the policy of sending private citizens aloft.
The 11:38 a.m. launch looked picture-perfect. A minute later, cable TV viewers and spectators at the Cape knew otherwise.
Then the voice of Mission Control confirmed. First, the voice said, "Obviously a major malfunction." Then, seconds later, "Vehicle has exploded. . . . We are checking with recovery forces to see what can be done."
Rescue teams boarded ships, helicopters and planes and combed the cold Atlantic waters 18 miles from the coast, searching against hope for signs of the crew. Paramedics leaped into the water amid spacecraft wreckage that kept falling from the sky for an hour after the explosion.
There was no one to be found.
By Tuesday night, a fleet of Coast Guard, Air Force and Navy helicopters, ships and planes searching for clues to the disaster had located only a few pieces of debris in seas of up to 200 feet, said Col. John Shults, director of Defense Department contingency operations. None of the pieces, which were each about five to 10 feet long, had been recovered.
"Everybody's sick, " said Bob Osterblom, an engineer who works on the solid rocket boosters at Cape Canaveral. "It's like a morgue around here. There are so many backup systems, NASA is so cautious, so careful, so safety-minded, that it's incredible this happened."
For a moment, America stood still. Then a nation's anguish began to churn.
Congressmen talked of reevaluating the nation's space program. Within hours, newspapers published extra editions. Wall Street expressed its doubts as stock prices of four shuttle contractors dropped.
Children in classrooms across the country fell silent as their teachers wept at the loss of a colleague. And everywhere, Americans sat by television sets, watching again and again the videotape of the spectacular breakup of the nation's showpiece of space technology.
Challenger rose majestically off the launch pad at 11:38 a.m. It climbed smoothly, trailing a 700-foot geyser of fire as it soared to a speed of 1,977 miles an hour. Then, as the world watched, the mammoth spacecraft erupted in a huge fireball and shot out of control.
Trail of smoke
For more than half an hour after the explosion, a serpentine trail of white smoke remained in the clear Florida sky, marking the path of the wreckage as it plummeted to the sea 18 miles southeast of the launch pad. The flaming debris was clearly visible across Florida, from Tampa to Miami.
Unlike the shuttle Columbia during its first flights, Challenger had no ejection seats or any other way for the crew to get out of the spacecraft.
The Challenger crew included the first private citizen to fly on a shuttle, McAuliffe, 37, a social studies teacher from Concord, N.H. She was to have taught American children four televised lessons from space.
The other crew members were commander Francis "Dick" Scobee, 46; pilot Michael J. Smith, 40; Judith Resnik, 36; Ronald E. McNair, 35; Ellison S. Onizuka, 39; and satellite engineer Gregory B. Jarvis, 41.
McAuliffe, who was selected from 11,146 applicants to be the first teacher in space, had waited all morning at launch pad 39B through a liftoff delay caused by computer problems and icicles on the pad. A bitter cold front had moved through the space port overnight, producing sub-zero wind-chills at the launch pad.
The launch had been postponed five times, two fewer than the record seven delays Columbia suffered earlier this month.
McAuliffe's husband Steve; their two children, Scott, 9, and Caroline, 6; and members of Scott's third-grade class watched in silence from a viewing area three miles from the Cape. The children carried a large banner that said, "Go Christa."
As the $1.1 billion spacecraft blew apart in plain view, many cried. Parents hugged children and quickly cleared them off the bleachers and onto buses.
McAuliffe's parents, Edward and Grace Corrigan of Framingham, Mass., stood together arm in arm as the loudspeaker brought the bad news. A NASA official climbed a couple of rows into the bleachers and told them: "The vehicle has exploded."
Mrs. Corrigan looked back at him and repeated his words as a question.
"The vehicle has exploded?"
He nodded silently. The Corrigans were quickly led away.
In New Hampshire, all 1,200 students at McAuliffe's Concord High School gathered in the auditorium to watch the launch on television. They cheered at the launch, then fell silent when a teacher yelled that something had gone wrong.
'Never any doubt'
Linda Long, who handled McAuliffe's public relations, said the teacher "anticipated the flight almost the way you anticipate riding on a roller coaster: While you're in line, you're scared and anxious. But she never had any doubt about the safety of the flight."
In fact, McAuliffe had said she felt safer going into space than she did driving in New York City traffic.
In Washington, the House of Representatives interrupted its session and the chaplain prayed for the astronauts. The House then adjourned.
Reagan sent Vice President George Bush to the Cape to observe the investigation. The president ordered all flags flown at half-staff for a week.
The New York and American stock exchanges planned to observe a minute of silence today in honor of the crew.
Rep. Harold Volkmer, D-Mo., chairman of the investigations and oversight subcommittee of the Science and Technology Committee, said the shuttle program will continue. But he said there should be no more flights until the cause of the explosion is determined.
The first seconds after takeoff looked like another NASA triumph.
"Liftoff!" NASA spokesman Hugh Harris called at 11:38 a.m. "Liftoff of the 25th shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!"
Challenger climbed away from the launch pad on a tail of orange flame and a white cloud of smoke, rolling over on its back as it arched out over the Atlantic against a clear blue sky.
Sixty seconds later, when the astronauts were beginning to throttle engines up to maximum thrust, NASA reported all engines and fuel cells running normally.
"Challenger, go at throttle up, " Mission Control told the spacecraft 52 seconds after launch. Scobee increased power as planned.
At one minute, 12 seconds after launch, Challenger had accelerated to 1,977 mph, three times the speed of sound. It was 10.4 miles up and 8 miles out over the ocean.
Suddenly, a brilliant ball of fire engulfed the shuttle. The engines continued to fire. One piece -- apparently one of Challenger's two strap-on solid rockets -- veered to the right, spiraling through the sky.
Mission Control reported no indication of any problem with the engines, the solid boosters or any other system. The shuttle just suddenly blew apart.
Radio communications and telemetry abruptly ended.
I got out there this morning about 7 a.m. This incredible excitement builds up until the thing finally goes off. There were a lot of reporters. Everyone was making jokes about "will it go, will it not go?" Every time they tell you they've stopped the countdown, it's for something you've never heard of. To me it was all new. Which is why this is all so amazing, because when you think of all the things they look at, it's incredible that something of this magnitude could go wrong.
It's such a spectacular thing. Such a loud roar when it goes off. Even though it's several miles away. It takes time for the sound to get to you. It was getting cold outside, so all the reporters were waiting until the last minute to go outside and watch it.
At liftoff, there's this incredibly gorgeous orange glow that came out of the bottom of the launch pad. It was like in Star Wars, those laser swords. It was stunning. I was just staring at it. I'd never seen a light like that before. Usually light like that you see in a fireball has black smoke around it. But this was just pure light. Then clean white smoke billowed around the launch pad.
Smoke stopped dead
There was a steady roar in the distance. It roared louder and louder. Then all of a sudden it stopped. This beautiful arc of smoke just stopped dead in its path. Five miles out. Kind of two orange glows, like someone had lit two tiny matches out in space.
I heard someone say, "The boosters are separating." I didn't know anything was wrong at that point. Then these pieces started to drift off in different directions. Then someone shouted, "RTLS, RTLS, " return to launch site. That's the signal that something's wrong, that they're aborting, that the shuttle would fly back and land.
I thought, no, this is crazy. This isn't how it's supposed to be. It got very quiet all of a sudden. This voice came over a loudspeaker from mission control that said, "We have reports that the vehicle has exploded." I didn't know what was going on. I had sort of a dread feeling. But I was inexperienced. I was like a little kid out there.
I saw photographers scrambling for their cameras. I ran back to the press dome and my heart started pounding. I sat down at my desk. I wasn't really paying attention to anything. They kept repeating that message, that apparently the vehicle had exploded. It didn't sink in at all. I just sat there. I couldn't think of anything to do. I started shaking.
I saw this woman, a reporter. She was hugging one of the PR people real tight. They just didn't move. I remember them just standing there. I said what the hell does that mean? The vehicle has exploded? The Challenger can't explode.
Friends of mine
I thought of those tapes after the Hindenburg crashed, of that guy saying, oh my God, all of humanity, this is terrible. A reporter behind me was crying. She said to me later, these aren't just astronauts; these are friends of mine; I socialize with them.
I was just numb. It's like your mother died; it doesn't sink in at first. I sat like that most of the day, if you want to know the truth. I called (my editor). I said you're going to have to send someone here to help me do this. I can't do this alone. They said they're already on the way. I just thought I couldn't possibly sit there and piece together this thing. I was just too upset.
You sit there and see the astronauts put on their helmets and climb in. You feel like you know them. McAuliffe, for Godsake. Everyone called her Christa. That poor woman got the privilege out of 11,000 applicants to get blown up five miles out in space. The incredible irony. All I could think was she was just an ordinary person like you or me.
I came up here to do this wonderful little human interest story about this woman who'd get kids excited again about space, and it never dawned on me that something like this would happen. You think if there's gonna be a problem, that's what you have countdowns for.
Cried on the phone
I called my mother. I cried on the phone. I wish I'd never seen it because it's haunting me now. I won't sleep tonight. I know I won't sleep. All I can think of is that cloud of smoke.
The last thing I wanted to be was a reporter this afternoon. I didn't want to be at the center of this bad news. I didn't want to be the one who had to explain it to everybody else. I just want to go into a room alone and think about it. I just felt, how am I going to write about this? It's too big for words.
Reporter Ellen Livingston witnessed the explosion of the shuttle Challenger from Kennedy Space Center. As the Miami Herald’s higher education writer, Livingston was sent to cover the participation of schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. It was the first time she had ever watched a space shot. Tuesday night, 10 hours after the explosion, Livingston gave this account to staff writer Patrick May.