28 years ago today
I was at the Johnson Space Center, sitting in my Division Chief’s office with other members of the Space Shuttle Flight Dynamics team, listening to the preparations and countdown for the launch of Challenger on the STS-51L Space Shuttle mission.
I had just graduated from The University of Texas with my Aerospace Engineering degree and started work down at NASA’s Johnson Space Center a scant 3 weeks prior to that Tuesday morning.
My career that I had been (quite literally) working my entire life towards was just beginning.
The corner office in Building 17 was crowded that morning. We had the television turned on to the launch coverage video, but had two small black boxes on the desk providing audio from the A/G (Air-to-Ground) and FLIGHT (Flight Director) loops.
Some people stood along the walls, some in chairs, but a number of us were seated on the floor – all anticipating another beautiful Shuttle launch and the flurry of Mission Control activity that a select few in that room would then be heading off to participate in the planned timeline.
When the final 10 second countdown began, the tension in the room was noticeable – almost physical – and I wondered to myself if launches were always like this, or if this was something unique. The silent exhale of most in the room at launch seemed to release the mood a bit, but we were all still very quiet, making small nods or murmurs of acknowledgement as several calls were made on the FLIGHT loop by various MCC team members, including our own FDO team that day.
When the Accident occurred, we saw it immediately on the television monitor in front of us, but also knew that most of the MCC team did not have that particular video clue, as they were tracking flight progress through digital telemetry readouts and flight trajectory plots.
It wasn’t until a few seconds later that, as telemetry ceased, the few television monitors in the MCC were showing the conflagration, and the reports from Florida were relayed through the MCC, that the realization set in that a “major malfunction” had just occurred.
By now you’ve seen the famous images, of both the plume and of the various reactions — I won’t recreate them here, as they still evoke a strong emotional reaction for me.
No one spoke for a long time in the Division Office. There may have been a few quiet prayers spoken, but most of us were leaning forward – hoping against hope that we would see the long-range television cameras lock onto Challenger gliding away from that ominous cloud, returning to the KSC launch site… but, of course, that did not happen.
As we all began to accept what we had just seen, the office slowly emptied – the team walking semi-consciously back to our offices. Several conversations were overheard about “how?” and “why?” – and the unspoken, but the eventual thought of, “what happens next?”.
What Happens Next?
Over the next two-and-a-half years, the NASA family showed me exactly “what happens next”.
I was proud to be a part of that effort – as the entire program rebuilt itself and returned to flight.
When Discovery launched in September of 1988, we were there again in that office – all holding our breath – this time until SRB separation.
Until the end of the Shuttle Program in 2011, every launch would bring back memories of that January morning in 1986…
- …every mission reinforcing that spaceflight was not routine, as we learned again in 2003 with Columbia.
- …every success tempered by the remembrance of what it took to get there.
- …every thought reminding me of the dedication of the men and women of NASA who, quite literally, rose from the ashes and showed that the goals of Space Exploration are noble, attainable, and worthwhile.
Honor the Memories
And now, even though the US space program seems to be in somewhat of a tactical pause, I honor the memories of those we have lost, celebrate my friends who are still there (both at NASA and in private industry), and look forward to a return of leadership that will recognize the benefits of a strong national space program.
But, during this week especially