Thursday January 28, 2010: 24 Years Ago Today

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If you’re old enough, you probably remember where you were and what you were doing on the morning of January 28, 1986.   I know I do.

It was a beautiful sunny day in Florida, but it was cold.  I was in the newsroom at WTAI-AM in Melbourne, where I was the program manager.   Since I also did the morning show on our FM station, I was unable that morning to go up to the Kennedy Space Center to cover the launch of STS 51-L, so another of our staffers went to the Cape that day, to get some audio for later use. Just a few days before, my (now ex) wife and I had taken her visiting parents to the Kennedy Space Center to see the visitors’ center and take the tour.  Our tour bus took us close to Launch Pad 39B,  and we all got a good look at shuttle Challenger, which was scheduled for launch a few days later.

I had covered several launches before.  In fact, I was there for the lift-off of the very first space shuttle, Columbia, in 1981, and I was there when Sally Ride became the first American woman in space.  I also covered one shuttle landing at the KSC landing site.  But all of us who lived on what is known as the Space Coast were veteran launch viewers, and all of the radio stations carried every launch live — even the satellite launches.

At 11:37, I went into the newsroom, so I could watch out the third-floor window, and listen to what was known as the V2 circuit.  It was simply the audio from mission control.  We had a clear view, although we were several miles south of the Cape.

At 11:38, Challenger lifted off, and a few seconds later, we could see it, riding its beautiful pillar of fire, leaving a gleaming white trail in the clear blue sky.  And then the sound hit —  a deep, powerful, window-shaking rumble… getting louder as Challenger climbed.

73 seconds after launch, as we watched, right after mission commander Dick Scobee said Go at throttle up, there was a huge, white and orange puff, and we could clearly see the solid rocket boosters going their separate ways.

Then, at 73 seconds into the flight...

We immediately knew this was not right.  It was far too early for SRB separation, and anyway, it didn’t look like that.  I turned to the person next to me and said, “Something just went very wrong.  I hope it’s not what I think it was.”

But it was.  For what seemed like an eternity, we waited to hear mission control say something about what we had seen.  Then the voice on the V2 Circuit said something about losing the downlink… something about telemetry… and then the words, obviously a major malfunction. You can click the little audio player here to hear what we heard And then the words which still give me chills when I hear them, we have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded… the flight director confirms that… and again, click on the audio player to hear it

The fact that it was all said so dispassionately, in such a detached manner added to the horror.  I’m not complaining about that, these people are rock-solid professionals, and that’s how they’re trained.  I’m sure their hearts were racing, and sweat was breaking… but you’d never have known it from hearing the audio.

Since it was the 25th shuttle launch, America wasn’t really paying too much attention anymore.  The radio networks didn’t even send their correspondents to the Cape anymore.  So a few minutes later, I got a call from ABC radio, since we were the closest affiliate to KSC, and I found myself live on ABC,  describing what I’d seen.

I also seem to remember doing some spots for CNN Radio, and for a few radio friends around the country, who knew I was close to the Cape.   We were, of course, extremely busy for the rest of the day, and I never did see actual video of the explosion until many hours later.   I still grit my teeth every time I hear the words go at throttle up…

There are now only five shuttle launches remaining before what is left of the fleet is retired.  The next one is set for the pre-dawn hours of Sunday, February 7.  I hope I can be there.

So where were you the day Challenger exploded?

The Crew of STS-51L

Today’s Curiosities

  • People actually signing a petition to repeal the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution.  This is just pathetic.  Take a look:
  • Need a warning sign?  Or something that just looks like a warning sign?  Here’s just what you need: The Warning Sign Generator!

And have a wonderful day!  — Steve


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