Cape Canaveral, Florida – A confused and stunned nation searched for answers to what caused the catastrophic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger that sent schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts to a fiery death 74 seconds after liftoff Tuesday.
President Reagan postponed for a week Tuesday night’s State of the Union address and in a brief television statement told the country that “today is a day for mourning and remembering” the crew.
“We share this pain with all the people of our country,” Reagan said. The accident defied quick explanation, though a slow-motion television replay seemed to show an initial problem with one of two peel-away rocket boosters followed by the detonation of the shuttle’s huge external fuel tank, which carried half-a-million gallons of supercold, super-volatile liquid oxygen and hydrogen.
The explosion occurred about the time Challenger was to enter a period of maximum aerodynamic pressure when wind and other atmospheric conditions would place the maximum force on the outside of the vehicle. Challenger, dwarfed by the fuel tank, burst into pieces, which rained into the Atlantic 10 miles below for the next 45 minutes.
Other observers noted that the boosters continued to fly crazily through the sky after the explosion, indicating that the fatal explosion might have originated in the giant fuel tank itself.
“We will not speculate as to the specific cause of the explosion based on that footage,” said Jesse Moore, NASA’s top shuttle administrator. National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials had organized a five-member investigative board by late Tuesday, and Moore said it will take a “careful review” of all data “before we can reach any conclusions.” A formal board is to be announced later by NASA Administrator William Graham.
Moore said the shuttle program, which had hoped to launch a record 15 missions in 1986, had been suspended until NASA determined what caused the tragedy. He declined to speculate about how long an investigation might take, saying only that flight safety was the agency’s first priority. NASA said its computers showed that all communications with the shuttle broke off 74 seconds after launch, marking that as the moment of the explosion.
Space shuttle tragedy stuns US
Mission Control in Houston reported that there had been no indication of any problem with the three shuttle engines, its twin solid boosters or any other system and that the shuttle just suddenly blew apart 10 miles high and 8 miles downrange of Cape Canaveral. Investigators also studied whether ice and cold weather, which delayed the shuttle’s launch time from 8:38 am Chicago time until 10:38 am, had anything to do with the explosion.
Ships, planes and helicopters rushed to a vast area 50 miles off the Florida coast where flaming debris rained down long after the mighty explosion, but all they found were parts of Challenger’s booster rockets.
“I regret that I have to report that based on very preliminary searches of the ocean where Challenger impacted this morning, these searches have not revealed any evidence that the crew of the Challenger survived,” said Moore, hours after the explosion. The shuttle, loaded at launch with nearly a half million gallons of explosive hydrogen and oxygen, carried no emergency escape system.
Onboard the Challenger were commander Francis “Dick” Scobee, 46, co-pilot Michael Smith, 40, Judith Resnik, 36, Ellison Omzuka, 39, Ronald McNair, 35, satellite engineer Gregory Jarvis, 41, and McAuliffe, the 37-year-old Concord, N.H., social studies teacher picked from 11,000 candidates to be the first private citizen in space.
It was the first in-flight disaster in 56 manned space missions and the first to claim the lives of Americans. Cries of horror went up at viewing sites along the coast when the shuttle exploded at 10:39 am Chicago time.
Challenger’s final moments
A shocked nation watched the replays over and over again on television. McAuliffe’s husband Steven, and two children Caroline, 6, and Scott, 9, watched the disaster that claimed the teacher’s life but were hustled away immediately by NASA officials. Also on hand were members of Scott’s third-grade class from Concord, N.H., displaying a large “Go Christa” banner.
McAuliffe’s parents, Edward and Grace Corrigan, were watching from a VIP area three miles from launch pad 39B when the tragedy struck. Cheers turned to shrieks of horror in the crowd and the Corrigans clutched each other in tears.
Vice President George Bush, dispatched to the Kennedy Space Center by Reagan, arrived at dusk with Glenn and Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, who flew a shuttle mission last year. “The President and I and the entire nation join in mourning the seven splendid men and women who now rest in God’s arms,” Bush said.
“I don’t know any time that I have been so shocked and so moved since my first wife was killed in a car accident,” Garn said, choking back tears. ‘It is very difficult for me personally when you lose so many friends all at once.”
Late Tuesday night Garn emerged from a meeting with the families of Challenger’s crew and said Scobee’s wife, speaking for all of them, asked that the tragedy not be allowed to harm the future of the space program. Newspapers across the national rushed special editions into the streets, some for the first time since the assassination of President Kennedy. Reagan was in a meeting in the Oval Office when aides rushed in with the news. He went into a nearby study to see a televised replay of the explosion and spokesman Larry Speakes said the president’s face was lined with grief.
Reagan, in an Oval Office address after he postponed his State of the Union message, reaffirmed his commitment to the shuttle program and said, “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.”
“We will continue our quest in space,” he said. “There will be more shuttle flights and more shuttle crews and, yes, more volunteers, more civilians, more teachers in space.”
He added: “Nothing stops here.” Col. John Shults, director of Defense Department contingency operations here, said a search armada of helicopters, ships and planes had spotted several pieces of debris floating in the Atlantic.
The Challenger disaster
Photos courtesy of NASA. Top photo: The crew of STS-51-L – Front row from left, Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, Ron McNair. Back row from left, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis, Judith Resnik.