Where Were You Twenty Years Ago?

January 28th, 2006

2006.01.28-13.14.46/51-l-patch.jpgJanuary 28, 1986: I was a senior in the Electrical Engineering program at Auburn University; it was winter quarter, my second-to-last quarter at Auburn. About that time I was taking courses in 3-D computer modeling, coding theory, and a graduate-level course in digital control theory. The weather was clear, but winter at Auburn meant that rain was surely not far away.

I had just finished my morning classes, and I was in the van, headed to Wendy’s trailer for the afternoon. I had WEGL on the radio. 91.1, “Auburn’s Best FM”, playing progressive and alternative rock. I was on the Shug Jordan Highway, about a mile past College Street, and headed toward Wire Road, when something unusual happened.

The DJ broke into the music with an announcement. I turned the radio up, because I knew something major was going on. The policy at WEGL – where I worked a Friday night shift – was that you never ever interrupt the music. Even when the word came down the wire that President Reagan had been shot, the DJ allowed the song to finish before reading the announcement.

The station had just installed a live feed from CNN radio news. As he broke into the song, the DJ said “We’re going straight to CNN. Something has happened with the Shuttle.” Then he flipped a switch, and the CNN announcer came on, in mid-sentence.

At first it wasn’t clear what the announcer was trying to describe. It wasn’t even clear what he had seen. He obviously didn’t want to draw premature conclusions – I guess that’s something that reporters worry about. But in being cautious, that reporter was also rather vague. All I could tell from his report was that something was very wrong and that the shuttle was off course. I began to get an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

When I got to Wendy’s trailer, I turned on CNN, although by then the news was on every channel. When I saw the video for myself, my heart sank. It gives me a chill just to think about the first time I saw the replay of the last moments of Challenger’s flight. That queasy feeling in my stomach turned into deep sickness. I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

As my knees went weak, and I sat down in front of the TV, I realized another reason that CNN radio reporter had been so vague. He didn’t want to believe what he’d seen. Challenger had disappeared into a giant fireball. The NASA Public Affairs spokesman had announced a “major malfunction”. The implications were just too awful to contemplate, much less to speak out loud.

Even twenty years later, the sights and sounds are still burned into my mind. That goat’s-head hanging against the blue Florida sky, the trails left by the solid rocket boosters rising like devilish horns above the massive fireball. I just close my eyes and I can see it. And I still cringe when I hear the shuttle commander say “Roger, go at throttle-up.”

I don’t remember specifically what I did the next few days. I suppose I continued eating, sleeping, and going to class. What I do remember is that I was consumed by the need to see and read everything I could about the accident. I watched the TV all that afternoon, and late into the night. I went out and bought newspaper after newspaper (I probably still have some of the front pages in a box somewhere). I consumed every theory and speculation in my attempt to understand that had happened.

We later learned that Challenger hadn’t exploded at all – not in the technical sense of being torn apart by internal forces. A faulty O-ring in one booster had allowed a plume of hot gas to cut through both the strut that attached the booster to the shuttle’s external tank, and the tank itself. With its structure significantly weakened, Challenger was torn apart by tremendous aerodynamic forces.

So much has happened since then. NASA got back on its feet, got the shuttle back in the air, and for seventeen years everything looked good. Then three years ago, the whole nightmare repeated itself. As an employee of a NASA contractor, I got a much closer view of the process: implementing our contingency plans, investigating, making changes, and returning to flight. From a personal perspective, though, it hasn’t changed. The shock, the grief, the coping… it was all painfully familiar.

As we wind down the Shuttle program, debate rages both within and without NASA over its safety. One former astronaut has even gone so far as to call the Shuttle a “deathtrap”. That’s a huge exaggeration that ignores the fact that the Shuttle has flown over a hundred crews and brought them safely home. I believe we can fly the Shuttle to its scheduled retirement without another loss, but somewhere down the road – either in this program or in the new Constellation program – another tragedy is inevitable. Spaceflight is just too dangerous. It could happen this year, or it could take a hundred years, but we will eventually lose another craft and crew. I fervently hope that day is many decades away, because it’s not something I ever want to experience again.

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Your turn: do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you got the news about Challenger? If so, leave me a short remark in the comments section (or in your own blog – but don’t forget to trackback).

4 Responses to “Where Were You Twenty Years Ago?”

  1. brem Says:

    I was in recess in primary school. We got to leave early to go home and watch the news. It was a big event for us kids in 1986.

  2. Ginger Says:

    I was in 7th grade, in my science class. I thought it was most fortuneous that the shuttle would launch during my class period, and my teacher said we would be able to watch it on TV, a rare treat for us. A few minutes into the class period, someone came into the room and spoke quietly to my teacher, who then exited the room quietly. We were reading an assignment quietly, looking at the darkened television on its cart, and someone asked aloud whether he or someone else might turn it on and watch, since our teacher was slow to come back into the room.

    My teacher finally reappeared, and told us what had happened. She carried a VHS recording in her hand, and once we were prepared emotionally, we watched it, and gasped. Others appeared in the science room wanting to see it, and it was replayed a lot that day, as random students and adults alike wandered in to watch it. Very surreal.

  3. Kay Says:

    I was a junior at Grissom High School. I can’t remember which class I was in, I just remember the news got around fast and the teachers (and students) were very upset, some even cried. People were in shock and it was hard to comprehend what had really happened. We weren’t allowed to watch the tv coverage and I didn’t get to see what happened until I got home that afternoon. It was a very bad day.

  4. Leigh Ann Says:

    I was applying for a job. The location had a waiting room with televisions playing. I watched in awe as the event replayed over and over. I had a profound sense of sadness and, like Jimmy, had the need to watch and read as much as possible over the next few days. Jennifer was a tiny baby when this happened (3 months old). Having the joy of a newborn made me feel even more deeply the loss of the families the astronauts left behind. Also, having lost our own mother at a young age, I felt particularly sorry for the young children left behind.