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NASA's Tragedies - Remembering Apollo 1, Challenger, Columbia

John Keefer | 26 Jan 2016 16:30
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By January 28, 1986, I was almost as engaged in the space program as my father. I worked for the local newspaper and one of my areas of coverage was the space program. I had not missed a single launch, watching several of them from the Kennedy Space Center press site - so close to the launch pad you could almost feel the heat from the thrusters as the vehicles roared skyward. One of the lasting memories of launches was the sound. If the wind was blowing across the river just right, the sound of the rockets and the vibrations of the rumble would get so incredible that our kitchen cupboard doors would pop open. But with Challenger, the 25th shuttle to be launched, it was not the rumble of liftoff that signaled a problem. It was the uncharacteristic second one.

I was not working this launch, so I did the unthinkable. I slept in. When the familiar rumble woke me up, I glanced at the clock to see that Challenger had indeed lifted off on time. However, slightly more than minute later, I heard another rumble. I ran outside, only to see the familiar plume of smoke stop abruptly and branch off into a grotesque Y as the shuttle's solid rocket boosters screamed away from the exploded main tank and what was left of Challenger. I immediately turned on the TV to hear the report of a "major malfunction" from NASA's launch director and my heart sank.

I immediately went to the office to start writing news for the EXTRA that our paper was putting together. After all the triumphs of the last 19 years, the morning of January 28 would become an addition to the sad trivia question that accompanied disasters or national tragedies:

"Where were you when ...?"

I did the unthinkable. I slept in.

I couldn't get through to Dad at the space center. Our news room was deathly silent, and there was not a dry eye in the building. I couldn't even begin to think about what was going on at NASA as they struggled to raise the crew on the radio and figure out what had just happened.

Unfortunately, it would be several months before the tragedy was pieced together, and the word "o-ring" became a common term in the English language. In the aftermath, it became clear that complacency and NASA's growing need to stay on schedule with a calendar of more frequent launches led to the deaths of astronauts Dick Scobee, Michael Smith, Christa McAuliffe, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Ron McNair and Greg Jarvis. The signs that the shuttle should not have been launched were there. Only a few spoke up, but no one in the hierarchy listened, as the mission had already been delayed six times throughout the previous week.

It was a sad and trying time for the NASA family, especially as more of the bleak news on how the accident happened came to light. My Dad, so proud of his association with the program, later told me that it was the only time in his career that he was ever ashamed to be part of NASA. But the program endured, and by September 1988, the shuttle program was back in space.

Dad eventually retired from NASA, and I moved on to California in 2000 to join the video game industry. Dad still never missed watching a launch, and he would call all his buddies at the space center each time for a job well done. I shared his enthusiasm with each launch and landing, the sting of missing the Challenger launch still embedded in my subconscious.

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