The Concord Monitor is launching its Environmental Reporting Lab, a long-term effort to better inform the community about the New Hampshire environment. To launch phase 1 of this effort, we need your help. The money raised will go toward hiring a full-time environmental reporter.

Please consider donating to this effort.


'Disbelief, horror and a search for answers'

Last modified: 1/28/2011 12:00:00 AM
Twenty-five years ago today I was at the three-mile line at Cape Canaveral, when, as I wrote in a story that appeared in the Monitor the next day, the space shuttle Challenger shook the Earth goodbye for the last time. Like everyone in the stands, I was on my feet, taking notes while barely taking my eyes off the shuttle. The seats that held Concord's teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe's parents, students and friends were down and to my left.

The experience of the people in those stands, people who knew Christa well, was doubtless different from mine. I played basketball and occasionally bent an elbow afterward with Christa's husband, Steve, and I'd met her. But covering Christa - and in Concord she will forever be simply Christa - was the job of my friend and colleague Bob Hohler.

What I can tell you is what I thought, and felt, once I knew that during Christa's reach for the stars, the stars crossed, with devastating effect. How, since then, it's been harder to take cocksure experts at their word, or see NASA as the Olympian agency that I'd watched land a man on the moon. I was in Florida to report on the science of the launch, the technology that made the shuttle flight possible, the backup plans if something went wrong and, yes, the risk of traveling on a spacecraft that's strapped to what in a heartbeat can become a bomb.

I remember the un-Florida-like cold and the frustration at delay after delay. The launch of the previous shuttle, the Columbia, had been delayed seven times, spawning jokes about the little rocket that couldn't. The Challenger launch had been delayed five times before the order was given to launch. NASA's prestige was on the line.

Long icicles hung from the cradle that supported the shuttle, its two solid rocket boosters and the enormous liquid hydrogen fuel tank. Like most people, I had faith in NASA and technology, and I was comforted by the history of 24 previous safe shuttle flights, including nine by the Challenger. I knew there were risks but underestimated them. Most of all, I underestimated the ability of people to risk lives to save face.

I remember the roar beyond thunder when ignition occurred, a sound that silenced all else. Eyes lifted upward in awe, breath suspended. As soon as I saw the shuttle's trail in the sky corkscrew crazily from where it should have been, I knew something terrible had happened. When the shuttle disappeared in a great white cloud 73 seconds after liftoff, I thought it had evaporated in the explosion. It was impossible to imagine that anyone had survived.

One of the trails curled back toward Cape Canaveral. NASA's announcer yelled, "It's coming back, " believing that the shuttle had escaped and was returning to an emergency landing site inland.

"No, it's gone," said a journalist near me who had covered many shuttle launches. I knew he was right.

Moments later, the announcer said, "We have a major malfunction. The vehicle has exploded."

Some journalists, thinking that it was a rocket booster coming back, took a few steps in search of shelter. What I did next surprised me. I looked down at Christa's parents and the stunned schoolchildren still waiting to be reassured that their beloved teacher was okay, at the people on their knees praying, and at several crying journalists. Then I ran.

In 1986 there were satellite phones that small newspapers couldn't afford, but no cell phones. My laptop was the size of a small sewing machine. Days of waiting and filing stories had made it clear that NASA had grossly underestimated the number of telephone lines it would need to serve the size of the press corps drawn by the launch of the first teacher in space. I knew that if Hohler and I couldn't get a line, the Monitor, which came out in the early afternoon at the time, would miss the biggest story in modern history. I secured a phone, dialed out, called the paper and stayed on the line until after the presses rolled.

We remained at Cape Canaveral that day. Hohler spoke to people who knew Christa. I went to NASA briefings and talked to NASA workers. One of them, a middle-aged cafeteria employee, had moved to Florida from Concord. "You keep hoping for a miracle, but I know there isn't going to be one," she said. A shuttle ground crew member uttered words that I'll never forget. "She died in the boots she wanted to fill. She was with the Lord in a twinkling."

I also remember the excruciatingly macabre circling of the vultures riding the thermals that rose from the shuttle's enormous assembly building that sunny but cold afternoon.

We now know the cold weather led to the failure of an O-ring, seals that connected the segments of a rocket motor to one another and, like a faucet washer, prevent leaks. We know that NASA officials gave the go-ahead to launch despite warnings from a senior NASA engineer that the rings could fail.

NASA's administrator blamed the press for pressuring the agency to launch when conditions were far less than ideal. But journalists didn't have their finger on the button. NASA did. Richard Feynman, the eminent physicist and Nobel laureate who was on the commission that investigated the cause of the Challenger disaster, concluded that NASA allowed a desire to preserve its image to take precedence over astronaut safety. I'm still angry about that.

One of the unfortunate aspects of commemorating the anniversaries of tragedies is that the people who lost the most are forced to relive the experience over and over again. I deeply hope that the McAuliffe family was spared that on this 25th anniversary of the Challenger's unnecessary explosion.

NASA's shuttle program began 30 years ago with the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. Sixteen years after the Challenger disaster, seven astronauts aboard the Columbia perished when damaged tiles allowed superheated re-entry gases to burn through a wing.

The shuttle program has three more flights scheduled, the last with just a four-member crew for safety's sake. That flight is scheduled for June 28. I will force myself to watch that final launch as a tribute to those who have died, and will die, on frontiers that we must continue to explore. When I watched the Challenger take off, I assumed the best. In June, the best that I will be able to do is hope.

(Ralph Jimenez can be reached at rjimenez@cmonitor.com or 369-3311.)


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Concord Monitor, recently named the best paper of its size in New England.

Concord Monitor Office

1 Monitor Drive
Concord,NH 03301


© 2021 Concord Monitor
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy