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Chapter Six: The Reaction

By William Harwood


"There was absolutely no pressure to get this particular launch off. We have always maintained that flight safety is our top priority consideration in the program. All of the people involved in this program, to my knowledge, felt that Challenger was quite ready to go. And I made the decision ... that we launch." - Jesse Moore, associate administrator for spaceflight

The Challenger disaster sparked national mourning on a scale not seen since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. President Reagan watched the explosion on television at the White House in "stunned silence." World leaders expressed shock and sorrow over the explosion and newspapers around the globe threw out domestic news the next day to banner the disaster. At the time of launch, 505 journalist were accredited to cover the mission from the Kennedy Space Center with just 30 at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Within three days, 1,467 reporters and broadcasters were on site at the Cape - 1,040 in Houston - and within six hours of the explosion, 15 satellite dishes were hauled to the Florida press site three miles from the launch pad to feed video coverage of the disaster across the nation and around the world.

At 4 p.m. that day, Reagan addressed the nation.

"Today is a day for mourning and remembering," he said. "Nancy and I are pained to the core over the tragedy of the shuttle Challenger. We know we share this pain with all of the people of our country. This is truly a national loss. Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, we lost three astronauts in a terrible accident on the ground. But we've never lost an astronaut in flight. We've never had a tragedy like this. And, perhaps, we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But the Challenger Seven were aware of the dangers and overcame them and did their job brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes."

Off the coast of Florida, Coast Guard ships were mobilized to help recover debris from the destroyed shuttle. Already on the scene were three NASA booster recovery ships, the Freedom Star, the Liberty Star and the Independence, stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., but working out of the Cape in January for crew training. These ships were built to recover spent SRB casings so they could be towed back to port for refurbishment and eventual reuse. Also on the scene were search and rescue forces stationed at nearby Patrick Air Force Base.

Although NASA refused to admit it, engineers were focusing on a booster rupture within 48 hours of the disaster. Preliminary analysis of the data radioed down from the shuttle showed the chamber pressure of the right-side booster had decreased shortly before loss of data. It showed the main engines and wing flaps had moved about, apparently to counteract unbalanced thrust from the SRBs, and it showed the engines tried to shut themselves down because of fuel starvation an instant before Challenger broke apart. But the space agency stuck to its policy of strict secrecy about the details of the investigation, an uncharacteristic stance for an agency that long prided itself on openness.

"It's clearly too early for us to speculate," said Moore. "We clearly don't want to zero in on something prematurely and say that's it and not get the prime cause. We're after the prime cause."

As hundreds of reporters converged on the Kennedy Space Center, NASA public affairs officers struggled to cope with an impossible situation. With little or no information coming from NASA management, the PAO's, called "flaks" by reporters, were unable to answer the most basic questions about the disaster. Most reporters found this stance understandable, but such charity turned to open bitterness as days went by and NASA maintained its stony silence. This was particularly galling to the PAO's who had to face the media day after day, because a contingency plan was in place for just such an emergency. The document was signed by former chief of Public Affairs Frank Johnson in November 1985 with the approval of then NASA Administrator James Beggs.

But Beggs was forced to step down as administrator in December when he was indicted on charges he defrauded the government while an executive with General Dynamics Corp. He was replaced by acting Administrator William Graham, a man with relatively little working knowledge of the space shuttle system.

As with most government agencies, when an administrator leaves, his public affairs chief soon follows suit and Johnson, after being reassigned to "special projects," left NASA in early January. He was replaced by Shirley Green, former press secretary to Vice President George Bush. While a capable administrator, Green knew far less than even Graham about the space shuttle system when she was suddenly thrust into crisis management on a grand scale. In addition, she appeared to be a firm believer in sticking to the party line and limiting the flow of negative information. As a result, she appeared to acquiesce to management on policy decisions relating to what information about Challenger could be released and did not wage a visible fight to improve the flow of information.

In any case, Johnson's contingency plan was thrown out the window. To fully appreciate the course NASA charted, one must glance at the contingency plan, a remarkably optimistic document that called for a shuttle commander to be available to reporters within a few hours of an emergency landing, for example. In the event of crew death, the plan said NASA would inform the media within 20 minutes of confirmation, after family members were notified because "it would serve no purpose" to delay such an announcement. The first official word on the fate of Challenger's astronauts came from Moore at 4:30 p.m., five hours after the accident.

"It is with deep, heartfelt sorrow that I address you here this afternoon," Moore said at an outdoor news conference. "At 11:40 a.m. this morning, the space program experienced a national tragedy with the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, approximately a minute and a half after launch from here at the Kennedy Space Center. I regret that I have to report that based on very preliminary searches of the ocean where the Challenger impacted this morning, these searches have not revealed any evidence that the crew of Challenger survived.

"All early indications in the launch control center here, and in the mission control center in Houston, were polled immediately after the explosion (and) reported that they did not see anything unusual up to that point. The solid rocket booster recovery ships were immediately dispatched to the area, approximately 18 miles or so downrange from Kennedy, along with various Coast Guard and military ships, helicopters and planes.

"I have taken immediate action to form an Interim Investigating Board to implement early activities in this tragedy. Data from all the shuttle instrumentation, photographs, launch pad systems, hardware, cargo, ground support systems and even notes made by any member of the launch team and flight ops team are being impounded for study.

"I am aware and have seen the media showing footage of the launch today from the NASA select system. We will not speculate as to the specific cause of the explosion based on that footage. It will take all the data, careful review of that data, before we can draw any conclusions on this national tragedy. Thank you."

Following Moore's announcement, NASA adopted a strict no-comment policy on all matters dealing with the astronauts. NASA typically uses more than 100 still, movie and television cameras to document a shuttle launch. After every previous launch, NASA provided journalists with replays of launch coverage from a variety of television cameras in different positions. A "mix" of these views was released live the day of Challenger's launch over the agency's closed-circuit television system - "NASA-Select."

But within an hour of the explosion, the rest of the videotape was impounded. The same was true of normally released still pictures from NASA remote cameras. Remote cameras set up near the launch pad by news agencies also were impounded by NASA to ensure no photographic evidence was lost. The New York Times refused to submit to this policy and after threats of a lawsuit, the space agency agreed to let a Times photographer process the film and duplicate it.

Graham and Moore, in a sense, created a "Catch-22" for NASA and reporters. On the one hand, the agency was asking news organizations not to speculate on the cause of the worst disaster in space history. But on the other, it encouraged such speculation by withholding even the most rudimentary information. The New York Times and United Press International, for example, wrote stories raising the possibility that an external tank or fuel line failure triggered the disaster based on analyses of videotape. Unknown to journalists, however, NASA engineers were considering a booster rocket malfunction within 48 hours. Yet it was not until Feb. 13 that NASA released photographs that showed an "abnormal plume" on the side of the right-hand rocket, which clearly was a jet of flame.

The news media pulled out all the stops to cover the disaster.

"Space Horror," The Sydney Daily Mirror bannered the next day in a black headline. "Spaceship Disaster - Teacher Dies Living The American Dream," headlined the Daily Mail in Britain. In Moscow, Soviet television showed the explosion on its nightly news and Polish television used the disaster to attack the U.S. "Star Wars" program for a space-based nuclear defense. Irish Prime Minister Garret Fitzgerald and President Patrick Hillery sent telegrams to Reagan expressing condolences over the explosion.

Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney said he asked U.S. Ambassador Thomas Niles to convey Canada's "great grief at the tragedy that has just struck the United States, a terrible loss in remarkably tragic circumstances." In Paris, French President Francois Mitterrand said in a telegram to Reagan, "the French people felt, at the announcement of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a profound emotion and sincere compassion for the astronauts aboard." Patrick Baudry, the French astronaut who flew aboard the shuttle Discovery in June 1985, said: "I think the sacrifice of my friends who were on board today will not be for nothing. There have been other accidents before. They have all served some purpose."

Arianespace, the private European company that competes with NASA for commercial satellite launch contracts, said the company was in "profound sympathy with NASA in this event. Arianespace knows well the extraordinary capacity of Americans to overcome their setbacks, and we remain confident for the future of space travel."

But the disaster was hardest felt at home, where millions of Americans, many of them school children watching the ride of the nation's teacher in space, watched in horror as Challenger's flaming demise was burned into their consciousness over and over again on television. McAuliffe's parents, her husband and two children witnessed her death in person at the Kennedy Space Center and television cameras brutally recorded the parents' reaction to the explosion.

In Concord, N.H., the cheers from students at McAuliffe's high school quickly turned to tears when Challenger broke apart and the stunned teenagers were sent home for the day. "I didn't believe it happened," said junior Mark Letalien. "They made such a big thing about it. Everyone's watching and she gets killed."

President Reagan canceled his State of the Union address Tuesday night and ordered Vice President Bush to Cape Canaveral to express his personal sympathy to the families of the dead crew members: June Scobee and her children Kathie and Richard; Jane Smith and the pilot's children Scott, Alison and Erin; Lorna Onizuka, Janelle and Darien; Cheryl McNair, Reginald and Joy; Judith Resnik's father and mother, Marvin and Betty; Steven McAuliffe, Scott and Caroline; and Marcia Jarvis. All witnessed the death of their loved one.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us in the way in which they lived their lives," Reagan said in a nationally televised speech to the nation that night. "We'll 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 bounds of Earth and touched the face of God."

Speaking to the nation's children who watched the tragedy unfold on television, Reagan was philosophical: "I know it's hard to understand but sometimes painful things like this happen. But they're all part of the process of exploration and discovery, all part of taking a chance and expanding man's horizons. The future doesn't belong to the faint hearted. It belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future and we'll continue to follow them."

Official Washington was equally stunned. Bush described the explosion as an "enormous tragedy." Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who flew aboard Discovery in April 1985 as a congressional observer, was visibly shaken by the tragedy at a Capitol Hill news conference.

"These are my friends," he said. "Mike Smith was my mother hen (while training for his flight). He helped brief me ... I don't know anytime when I was more shocked or more moved than when my first wife died."

House Chaplain William Ford, in giving the opening prayer for the day, said: "At this special moment let us remember in silent prayer those who were involved in the space craft shuttle accident just a few minutes ago, off Florida. Let us pray. May your spirit, oh Lord, be with them and may your love follow them and their families this day and every day."

Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., said, "Every so often in the history of the world great people give their lives to help the rest of us. That's what those on the space shuttle have done. We are all in their debt forever."

The eight other finalists in the Teacher in Space program also were shocked and dismayed by the disaster. "It was a ... devastating, soul-wrenching experience to see what happened and know I could have been on there," said Steve Warren, an English teacher in Austin, Tex.

"I realize now that I have a lot to lose," said Bonnie Fakes, a Lebanon, Tenn., English teacher who did not make the final round in the selection process. "Before I said I would go in a minute ... without a thought. Nobody would say that now. Everybody thinks that it's so routine. People have forgotten it is complicated. We all thought it was a safe system. I'm so grateful to be home safe and sound and yet I feel guilty."

Eastern Air Lines Chairman Frank Borman, a former astronaut whose Apollo flight circled the moon in December 1968, issued a statement saying, "I am deeply saddened by the tragedy at the Cape. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of the crew and the members of the launch team."

The day after the accident, Graham, Moore, Richard Smith, director of the Kennedy Space Center, and a public affairs officer with the Coast Guard held a news conference to address a horde of reporters. Graham announced the president planned to attend a memorial service at the Johnson Space Center on Friday, Jan. 31, and Moore described the organization of the accident review board, insisting he had no data on what might have caused the disaster.

Lt. Cmdr. James Simpson said recovery of debris began the night before with the largest piece found measuring 12 feet by four feet. What Simpson was not allowed to say was that recovery teams also had found items from the crew cabin lockers and some of Resnik's personal effects. It was later learned that Simpson wrote a press release about the astronaut's belongings but that Green, apparently, refused to allow its release. It was Graham who said early on the agency would not discuss any aspects of the astronauts' fates out of respect for family members.

In Houston, flight director Jay Greene and Nesbitt held another news conference to discuss what had happened in mission control during Challenger's ascent. Greene said his controllers had no inkling of what went wrong and that all data looked normal up until the instant the shuttle disintegrated.

"The mood in the control center was extremely professional under the circumstances," Greene said, "very somber and there was not much said. Everyone watched the TV probably like everybody else did and was sort of hoping that maybe something better would come out of it. After a while, we resumed gathering the data, put it all up and called it a day."

Death certificates for the seven shuttle fliers were signed Jan. 30 in Houston. Here is McAuliffe's:

"This is to certify that on January 28, 1986, at or about 11:39 a.m. EST, and approximately 18 miles off the Atlantic coast of Florida, near the Kennedy Space Center in the County of Brevard, State of Florida, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a female person of the age of 37 years, died when the Shuttle spacecraft Challenger in which he/she was riding exploded; that such person was a native of Concord, N.H., and that the social security number of such person was (censored). - James S. Logan, M.D., Chief, Medical Operations Branch, Johnson Space Center.

The next day in Houston, President Reagan addressed a throng of grieving NASA employees and members of the astronauts' families.

"Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short, but we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain," he said. "Our nation is indeed fortunate that we can still draw on an immense reservoir of courage, character and fortitude - that we are still blessed with heroes like those of the space shuttle Challenger. Man will continue his conquest of space. To reach out for new goals and ever greater achievements, that is the way we shall commemorate our seven Challenger heroes."

One employee at the Johnson Space Center wrote in his diary:

"This is the first time I have ever arrived at work with tears streaming down my face. I came in through the main gate and saw for the first time all of the flowers that had been placed in front of the JSC sign. The one that tugged at my heart was sent by the state of Virginia. It is huge, shaped like a heart, covered with red and white carnations and says simply, "Virginia Cares." That's all it took for me to lose it. When I drove in, there already were people parked on the side of the road taking pictures of the flowers. These are hard days."

At the end of the service, four blue and white NASA T-38 jets, used by the astronauts for training, roared over the memorial service. One plane peeled away leaving an empty slot in the formation symbolizing the lost astronauts. For Lorna Onizuka, it was the last straw and she nearly collapsed under the weight of her grief.

Late in the afternoon, McAuliffe's parents issued a statement:

"We wish to express our gratitude to all whose thoughts and prayers have been with us during this tragic time. With the greatest pride we read and hear how Christa touched so many lives throughout the world. It is our hope that Christa's spirit will remain alive through those she inspired.

"Thank you all who have shared with us the loss of Christa, our daughter and sister. We send our heartfelt love to the families and friends of the Challenger's crew."

The national outpouring of shock and sorrow continued for weeks, but for NASA, more important work was afoot: recovery of shuttle wreckage and an around-the-clock effort to find out exactly what went wrong.

Chapter Seven: The First Month