This article originally appeared on July 8, 2011. We repost it today to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Challenger disaster.
First in a series.
A few moments ago, at 11:30am EDT, Atlantis lifted off, marking the 135th and final mission in NASA’s historic Space Shuttle program, which began in 1981. The Shuttle era was defined by glory and tragedy and perhaps even a bit of banality. After all, the first time you do something it’s exciting, but at some point it becomes routine, even if the something in question involves lobbing over 2,000 tons of metal into space.
Over the coming days, as the crew of Atlantis orbits the earth, conducting experiments and, one hopes, taking a few moments to enjoy the ride, the staff at Scholars & Rogues will be offering a series of personal reflections on the program. We have also invited some guests to drop by, including our rocket scientist buddy Dr. Michael Pecaut, who has had quite a few experiments up on the Shuttle (and is at Kennedy Space Center right now working on yet another one).
We encourage our readers to join in as we celebrate the end of a significant and storied era in humanity’s scientific and technological history.
I’ll go first, and begin with probably the most obvious moment in the program’s history. Where were you when…Kennedy was shot? The first plane hit the towers? Challenger exploded?
Like many Americans, my memories of January 28, 1986 are vivid.
It was three days before my 25th birthday. I was maybe three months into my second real job out of college (if you call something that pays slightly less than $200 a week a real job), serving as the Creative and Production Director for WSEZ, 93.1 FM (Z-93) in Winston-Salem, NC. Our Program Director, Gray Smith, was on-air with his popular midday show and decided to air the launch for our listeners. So for a few minutes leading up to the launch he cut over to the cable audio feed. I had wandered back into the studios to ask a question about something, saw what he was doing, and figured I’d hang out there and watch (we had a small TV monitor in the studio, tuned to CNN, I think).
Shortly after Challenger lifted off, Gray potted up his mic and faded the feed: “And there she goes. We’ll be back with more after the break,” or something like that. Then he fired the CART array and set about cuing up the next record.
73 seconds into the flight something went wrong. It took a few seconds to sink in – the mind’s reflex is denial – but Gray cut back in at the end of the commercial, his voice level, but grave, saying simply that “something has happened with the Shuttle. We’re taking you back to CNN.”
We all sat there watching on the little monitor as the early moments of the disaster played out, as we saw the pictures, the impossible pictures, and listened as the experts tried to sort it out. By now most everybody in the building had congregated around the studio, but nobody said much.
After a few minutes I walked back to my office, the normally noisy halls silent as a tomb, closed and locked the door and collapsed into the most uncontrollable tears of my adult life. And the honest truth is that I don’t remember much at all about the rest of the day.
January 28, 1986. Where were you when…