Thirty years after space shuttle Challenger and its crew were lost above Cape Canaveral, those memories etched across the clear sky are still strong for many.
The shuttle blasted off at 11:38 a.m. Jan. 28, 1986, but booster failure 73 seconds later led to the breakup of the orbiter.
The dreams of many rode with Christa McAuliffe, a New Hampshire teacher who won a national competition to teach lessons from space. Others aboard were commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, pilot Michael Smith, flight engineer Judith Resnik, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis, Ronald McNair and Ellison Onizuka.
Many Americans were touched by the loss, as these remembrances from around the UCF campus typify:
Scot A. French
Back in January 1986, I was in my second year as city editor for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, a mid-size daily newspaper serving the state’s capital region. We covered the Challenger launch as an international story with an incredibly compelling and fortuitous local angle: Christa McAuliffe, a Concord schoolteacher, was on board. She had been selected to be the first ordinary citizen in space as part of a national competition.
As city editor, I worked closely with everyone on the staff, from the editor and managing editor to the reporters and photographers in the field, to plan our coverage for the big event. One team traveled to Cape Canaveral to watch the launch from the viewing stand with family members. Another team fanned out to local viewing spots, such as restaurants, city offices, and — most importantly, given Christa’s occupation as a teacher — local schools.
The rest of us watched the launch on a small television screen in the newsroom.
I remember the rush of adrenaline as the shuttle rose — This is it! Let’s go! — and the confusion and horror that followed as we watched the plumes of white smoke against a brilliant blue Florida Space Coast sky.
After what felt like an interminable silence, our worst fears were confirmed by Mission Control: “Obviously a major malfunction. The vehicle has exploded.”
To this day, I cannot watch a space launch of any kind without some lurking fear of impending disaster.
The rest of that day is a blur. The explosion prompted us to rip up the front page and start over with the stunning news from Cape Canaveral and heartbreaking reports from our local correspondents. “Cheers Became Silence in Concord Schools,” read one headline. “Around Concord, Silence Soon Gave Way to Tears.”
I saved that day’s newspaper, and the next day’s as well, but had not looked at them for 30 years – until the days leading up to today’s anniversary.
Senior Design Coordinator
Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
I was born in 1974, so I was only a kid when the Challenger accident happened. As many kids do, I dreamed of being an astronaut. Even though I had poorly conceived kid notions of what that meant, it was still my dream to go to space. Shuttle flights were new, and I was young enough not to have experienced (or at least remembered) the Apollo program and its aftermath.
Shuttle was all that I knew, and it was an embodiment of a little kid’s dream. When the Challenger accident occurred, these were my heroes that died. This was one of the most emotional remembrances of my youth. Something precious had been snatched away, and the beauty of a kid’s dream became a sad story of loss.
One of the astronauts was Christa McAuliff. She was a teacher. So was my mother. It didn’t make it any easier.
In the time that followed, we learned that it was an O-ring on one of the Solid Rocket Boosters. I was a kid, and I didn’t even know what an O-ring was. All that I knew was that something had gone wrong with one and it had caused the accident. I wondered in my own naïve way why someone hadn’t done something about it. I wondered whose responsibility it was to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again.
I knew that if it were my responsibility that I would never let it happen, and it formed a hazily shaped, but firmly resolved approach that I carry to this day: Do not compromise what is right when safety is at risk. Some of my heroes died because someone didn’t do their job. The emotion of that moment drove home that point rather firmly.
Fourteen years later, I accepted a job working for United Space Alliance as an engineer working on those same Solid Rocket Boosters. I didn’t work on the O-rings, but I worked on countless other pieces of spaceflight hardware just as critical. Every day that we made decisions about what the “right” way to build our hardware was a day that the Challenger was in the back of my mind.
Did I think about it daily? No, but the memory was still there and the impression that it had made was always with me. Never compromise on safety. Always build the hardware correctly. Never accept “just OK” as a method of doing business. It has to be right, or it has to be done over again until its right…that was the only way.
I have applied twice for the Astronaut program since then. I’m going through the application process right now for the third time. I have Buzz Aldrin’s autograph hanging on my office wall. I proposed to my wife onboard space shuttle Discovery inside the Orbiter Processing Facility.
The little kid’s dream is still alive somewhere deep inside.
College of Education and Human Performance
I remember the Challenger accident like it was yesterday. I was just starting my second week in a new job in Orlando.
Originally, it was scheduled to be launched over the weekend, and I wanted to take my 4-year-old daughter to see the launch. But a cold front moved in and scrubbed the launch.
Who knew how ominous that was?
Challenger was to launch a teacher into space, and being an educator I had inquired about applying for the program – but administrators were not eligible.
The morning was beautiful and cloudless, but cold. I monitored the launch in my office and heard of the explosion on the radio. Soon I went outside and saw the contrails from the explosion in the eastern sky over Orlando.
What a powerful picture of a disaster! I still remember that picture vividly whenever I am reminded of the explosion.
Amy E. Foster
I was a freshman in high school when the Challenger accident happened. Everyone who knew me knew that I wanted to be an astronaut. On my way into my world history class, my teacher took me aside and told me what had happened.
We spent the entire class watching the news coverage. I remember feeling like every set of eyes in that class was on me. After all, they knew I wanted to be an astronaut, and here we were all witnessing the greatest space-related disaster in American history. But it didn’t stop me from wanting to fly in space.
NASA sold the shuttle program as routine flight and the American public accepted that whole-heartedly. This accident also happened with a teacher on board.
When I teach space history, I also point out that there was another civilian on board. Greg Jarvis was an engineer working for Hughes Aircraft. He was serving as a one-time payload specialist, something that was done with corporate engineers working on cargo packages onboard the shuttle.
When I went off to college, I still went with the intention of becoming an astronaut. I studied aeronautical and astronautical engineering at Purdue University, the school that produced the most astronauts outside of the military academies. But over time — along with the realization that my near-sightedness would work against me as an astronaut candidate — I knew I didn’t want to be an engineer.
I went back to school to pursue something else. By chance, I ran across a history of technology course in the catalog. I took it and fell in love. I realized I could meld my passion for space and spaceflight with my growing love of history.
I ended up getting my master’s in the history of science and technology from the University of Minnesota and my Ph.D. in history from Auburn University. My book is the product of that marriage. (Integrating Women in the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011)
I never stopped being fascinated by the space program. As an undergraduate in engineering, I was painfully aware that as a female I was a minority. So when I started exploring historical questions about the space program, I definitely wondered why it took so long for women to become astronauts.
We started flying people in space in 1961 (so did the Soviets), but they launched a woman in space in 1963, and Sally Ride didn’t fly until 1983. That question drove my research.
Lee-Anne T. Spalding
College of Education and Human Performance
I was in eighth grade science class at Tuskawilla Middle School in Seminole County when the news came over the loud speaker about what had occurred. We put the television on and watched the disaster over and over. There was such despair and sadness from everyone.
We had been learning about this mission specifically because of the teacher on board, Christa McAuliffe.
It was as if someone close to you had passed away. That feeling of loss was felt even though I was only 13 years old.
My father had been in the Air Force and the space missions were always watched and celebrated in our home. We would watch the liftoff on TV and run outside to look to the east and see the rocket’s fire and contrails of smoke.
That year Dad ordered the commemorative Challenger license plate for his vehicle.
I knew I wanted to be a teacher from Grade 7 on, so hearing of Christa McAuliffe’s plan to teach from space was certainly inspiring.
She and the rest of the crew were true heroes.