There are certain dates in our history and in our lives that we never forget. Like most people in my age range, I remember where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated, what I was doing when I saw the second plane crash into the Twin Towers on 9/11 and where I was and what I was doing 25 years ago today when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, in front of my own eyes in the sky above me.
I was working as the head of an advertising agency whose office was on Lee Road in Orlando, which is about 45-50 miles west of the Kennedy Space Center. It had become habit for many in Central Florida to stop what they were doing (even motorists driving on roads and expressways would pull over, stop their cars and exit their vehicles to stand and gaze skyward), step outside and watch the launches that produced bright, white trails of exhaust as the mighty rockets propelled NASA’s various space shuttles into the air and into orbit around Earth.
That January morning was cold and the air was dry. I sat listening in my office to the radio on my desk as I worked, with the volume turned down low, to coverage of launch preparation and the countdown to liftoff. At approximately 11:38am, after a two hour delay from the originally schedule launch time, Challenger roared skyward from the launch pad and I left my office to walk outside to the parking lot so I could watch the ascent of the shuttle with my own eyes.
Standing in the parking lot I looked eastward and up. There were some trees that blocked the view of the lower portion of the sky, but within a few seconds the white and light gray rocket exhaust trail appeared, cutting a swath across the clear blue sky of that crisp, cold morning and I silently cheered as the shuttle lifted higher. From the distance I was viewing, the shuttle itself could not be seen and only the trail of exhaust that it’s booster rockets left behind it gave evidence of its existence.
Suddenly, there was a larger puff and a smaller exhaust trail that appeared, shooting out almost perpendicular to the larger plume, and for a second I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen that happen before.” That thought was barely finished when the gently arcing exhaust trail grew larger at it’s source, as if someone had put their finger on the plume’s end and smudged it across the azure sky. The exhaust trail immediately stopped its normally easy rising curve and began to uncontrollably wriggle, presenting a view that was not unlike a child scribbling white against a blue piece of paper.
My mind was screaming the obvious in my head, “Something’s wrong! That’s not right!” and I raced back into my office to the radio and turned it up to hear some word of what had happened and if the astronauts were safe.
Today, we know that they were not. At 73 seconds and 48,000 feet into the liftoff, just as mission control gave Challenger the “throttle up” command that would push the shuttle out of earth’s gravitational pull and Commander Scobee responded with, “Roger, go with throttle up”, “O rings” that sealed the fuel tanks failed and the huge tanks exploded, sending 7 brave astronauts to their deaths. It would later be determined that, due to the cold temperatures before liftoff, the “O rings” had failed to perform.
This morning, at 11:39, I’ll spend a few moments in silence, honoring Commander, Francis R. “Dick” Scobee, its pilot, Michael J. Smith, and its crew, Christa McAuliffe (the first ‘Teacher in Space’), Mission Specialists Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnick and Ronald E. McNair, along with Payload Specialist Gregory B. Jarvis. And I’ll never forget where I was and what I was doing when they made the ultimate sacrifice in our quest to explore the unknown.
Rest In Peace…
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