On today’s date, January 28, in 1986 the Space Shuttle “Challenger” was nine miles above the earth, and seventy-three seconds into her mission, when as a result of a design flaw in her rocket boosters, she exploded. Owing to the presence on board of school teacher Christa McAuliffe, the launch was being broadcast into schools all over the United States, and the disaster in all of its dreadful finality happened in full view of thousands of school children. All seven crew members were killed. William Harwood, United Press International’s Cape Canaveral bureau chief witnessed the event in person:
William Harwood Witnesses the Disaster:
“Four miles away, ‘Challenger’ was climbing majestically into a cloudless blue sky. We could not see the initial puffs of smoke indicating a fatal booster flaw. A few seconds, the crackling roar of those booster swept over the press site and the UPI trailer started shaking and rattling as the ground shock arrived. I marveled at the view, describing it (over the phone to desk editor Bill) Trott in Washington.
And then, in the blink of an eye, the exhaust plume seemed to balloon outward, to somehow thicken. I recall a fleeting peripheral impression of fragments, of debris flying about, sparkling in the morning sunlight. And then, in that pregnant instant before the knowledge has happened settled in, a single booster emerged from the cloud, corkscrewing madly through the sky. I sat stunned. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. ‘Wait a minute….something’s happened….’ I told Trott. A booster? Flying on it’s own? Oh my God. ‘They’re in trouble,’ I said, my heart pounding. For the next two hours or so, I don’t remember anything but the mad rush of reporting. Subconsciously, I held the enormity of the disaster at bay; I knew if I relaxed my guard for a minute, it would paralyze me. I was flying on some mental auto-pilot. And then around 2 p.m. or so, there was a momentary lull. My fingers dropped to the keyboard, and I stared blankly out the window to the launch pad. I remembered Christa McAuliffe’s and Judy Resnik’s flashing eyes. Tears welled up. I shook my head, blinked rapidly and turned back to my computer. I’ll think about it all later, I told myself. I was right. I think about it at every launch.“
My Own Memories of That Day.
I was working at “Jones the Florist” on Mc Millan St. in Cincinnati when I heard about the death of “Challenger”. I was watering some plants when I heard Mrs. Gustin, the store’s owner come in and say “The Space Shuttle ‘Challenger’ has exploded.” I was stunned. I asked around of my fellow employees, “What happened to the crew? Had they survived?” But nobody knew. My lunch break came up, and I went out in my car to listen to the radio reports. All of them were very grim. There was apparently no way that the crew could have survived. I can recall later in the day the comments from Colonel John Glenn, a former astronaut and by then a U.S. Senator saying that people had forgotten how very dangerous space travel was. Hurtling through the atmosphere at a rate of five miles per second, it was an extremely perilous undertaking, the senator reminded us. I can remember my father, a retired Cincinnati Fireman, who was familiar with the University area saying that the distance between Hughes High School (of which he was a Class of ’42 Graduate) and the Firehouse at the corner of Clifton and Ludlow Ave. was exactly one mile. “Imagine” he said “traveling FIVE TIMES that distance in one second!” I can also recall the local classical music station WGUC playing music the rest of the day dealing with explorers, “Scott of the Antarctic” and pieces like that. All of this is burned into my memory as well.
President Reagan Pays Tribute to the Astronauts of “Challenger”.
(Above: President Reagan and aides watch news of Challenger on TV.)
On the night of the disaster, President Ronald Reagan had been scheduled to give his annual State of the Union Address. He initially announced that the address would go on as scheduled, but then postponed the State of the Union Address for a week and instead gave a national address on the Challenger disaster from the Oval Office of the White House. It was written by Peggy Noonan, and finished with the following statement, which quoted from the poem “High Flight” by John Gillespie Magee, Jr.:
“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of Earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”
Three days later, President Reagan with his wife Nancy traveled to the Johnson Space Center to speak at a memorial service honoring the astronauts and he stated “Sometimes, when we reach for the stars, we fall short. But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain.” The memorial service was attended by the families of the crew, and by 6,000 NASA employees and 4,000 guests. The U. S. Air Force band led the singing of “God Bless America” as NASA T-38 Talon jets flew directly over the scene, in the traditional missing-man formation. The Space Shuttle program would indeed go on, but not until several years later.
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