The day the Challenger exploded, ending the space age of innocence

Video: Space Shuttle Challenger explosion

Thirty years ago this week, America witnessed a tragedy: the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger over Florida. The Challenger exploded 72 seconds after its launch, disintegrating 10 miles off the coast and killing a crew of seven, including a te
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Thirty years ago this week, America witnessed a tragedy: the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger over Florida. The Challenger exploded 72 seconds after its launch, disintegrating 10 miles off the coast and killing a crew of seven, including a te

This account was published in the Miami Herald on Jan. 29, 1986, a day after the Challenger exploded over Cape Canaveral.

It was their moment of triumph, a moment any parent could understand. Ed and Grace Corrigan’s daughter, teacher Christa McAuliffe, was on her way into space, into the history books.

So they stood in the sunshine Tuesday, Ed and Grace Corrigan, arm in arm in the bleachers at Cape Canaveral, and they watched in triumph. And then in disbelief. And then in horror.

Something terrible had happened. And now, a NASA official was making his way to them. He was walking up the bleachers, slowly, row by row. And with every step, he was sealing their fate.

Finally, he arrived, as they knew he must. “The vehicle has exploded, “ he said. Mrs. Corrrigan looked back at him, and after a moment, she could find only these words, an echo really:

“The vehicle has exploded?”

The man nodded, and he was silent.

It was unthinkable. It was impossible. There were backup systems for backup systems. The space shuttle, indeed the entire space program, represented all that was excellent in American technology and in America itself.

And yet, it happened, in full view of millions of Americans, many of them impressionable schoolchildren. The shuttle and its precious human cargo were gone, incinerated in a fireball, debris raining into the Atlantic.

Here is a moment-by-moment reconstruction of America’s first in-space disaster, the end of space shuttle Challenger, the end of the age of innocence in space:

In heartbreaking retrospect, the liftoff appeared perfect. We had come to expect nothing else.

Challenger was poised on launch pad 39B, a refurbished moon rocket facility, a pad that had not been used for some time. Long delayed by weather, the flight had overcome two last-minute snags caused by seemingly minor computer and weather problems.

Now, all was ready, and with a word that had become so purely American, NASA spokesman Hugh Harris ended the 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 countdown in a cheer of “Liftoff!” It was 11:38 a.m.

“Liftoff of the 25th shuttle mission and it has cleared the tower!” Harris exclaimed.

Challenger sliced through a clear blue sky, away from the launch pad on a catapult of orange flame. In a normal maneuver, the spacecraft rolled on its back as it arched out over the Atlantic.

Mission Control proceeded with its familiar litany of high- tech spacespeak. “Roll program confirmed. Challenger now heading down range. The engines are throttling . . . . “ On and on, they went, the reassuring words of men in control.

In classrooms across the country, America’s children were watching this latest of many shuttle flights with special interest. One of their own, in a way, was aboard.

Christa McAuliffe had been selected from 11,146 teacher applicants to be the first to fly in NASA’s citizen-in-space program. In pre-flight interviews, she had proven herself a personable woman, a knowledgeable teacher.

At her school, Concord High back in New Hampshire, all 1,200 students cheered the launch. At the Cape, McAuliffe’s husband and children and parents watched with quiet pride.

McAuliffe’s selection, indeed the entire citizen-in-space program, had rekindled interest in the shuttle. A nation grown complacent with NASA’s technological successes, America looked at the civilian teacher and wondered: If she could travel in space, why not I?

Near the end of its first minute of flight, the shuttle was soaring at a speed of 1,538 miles per hour. It was 4.9 miles high and 3.5 miles out over the ocean.

Now, as planned, Mission Control flashed a message to the shuttle: “Challenger, go throttle up.” That was the order to accelerate to maximum thrust, ending a period of 60 percent thrust designed to reduce gravity’s effect.

A crewman responded, “Roger, go at throttle up.” It was the final statement heard from Challenger.

Commander Francis Scobee increased power to the main engines, just as planned. Within seconds, the craft was hurtling at 1,977 miles per hour, three times the speed of sound. It was 10.4 miles high, eight miles over the ocean.

The shuttle’s auxiliary boosters use a solid propellant; its main booster burns liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen. Under control, the volatile combination can boost Challenger out of this world. Out of control, it can be a devastating explosive.

Seconds later, the unthinkable happened.

A bright orange ball of fire engulfed the shuttle, nearly vaporizing much of it. One piece of the ship, one of Challenger’s two strap-on solid rockets, veered to the right and began spiraling through the sky.

On the ground, unaware of what was happening overhead, Mission Control maintained its patter for several long seconds:

“We’re at a minute, 15 seconds, velocity 2,900 feet per second, altitude 9 nautical miles, range distance 7 nautical miles.”

In reality, none of this was true. In reality, Challenger no longer existed.

Finally, after a period of silence, the authorities confirmed what so many eyes had seen. And when confirmation came, it came with the depth of control expected from trained technicians, from America’s best.

“Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation, “ Mission Control said mechanically. “Obviously, a major malfunction.”

And another voice from Mission Control: “Vehicle has exploded. . . . We are awaiting word from any recovery forces down-range.”

Near the launch site, members of the crowd shrieked or stared in disbelief. Challenger was plunging into the sea, not soaring into space.

“I can’t see the orbiter -- what happened to the orbiter, “ cried a young technician.

“No! No! No!” pleaded one spectator.

For nearly 45 minutes, fine pieces of debris floated through the air and fell into the Atlantic, several miles off Cape Canaveral. As the remains of Challenger returned to earth, officials launched much-practiced rescue operations, although it seemed so futile.

Ships and helicopters raced to the impact area, but had to stay away for some time. Said one NASA official: “Recovery forces were unable to enter the area for several minutes because of continuing falling debris.”

Paramedics leaped into the water. There was so little for them to find.

Back in Concord, at McAuliffe’s school, the cheers died in the throats of the young. A teacher yelled for them to be silent because something appeared to be wrong.

As it became clear there was an explosion, stunned students murmured: “This can’t be real.” “We can’t be watching this.”

Back in Mission Control, the awful realization hit home, and some scientists could not mask their emotions. “There was a lot of crying, “ said Richard Prickett, a computer engineer. “Everybody sort of takes this personally. You can’t be part of the program and not feel some responsibility.”

Ed and Grace Corrigan, meanwhile, watched from a VIP viewing area about 3 1/2 miles from the launch pad. Staring at the fireball and then at the plume of smoke that remained overhead for a half-hour, waiting for that visit from the NASA official, they hugged each other, and they sobbed.

Also there were McAuliffe’s husband, Steve, and their two children, Scott, 9, and Caroline, 6. Scott was accompanied by members of his third-grade class from Concord. Some of his friends were still holding a large “Go Christa” banner.

The children watched in stunned silence. Several began crying. Parents herded them toward the buses. The adults didn’t say much. What could they say?

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