Twenty-Seven Years

That’s how long ago was the beginning of the end for the Shuttle, not even five years after it first flew. Eleven years ago, I recalled the event:

I was sitting in a meeting at the Rockwell Space Transportation Systems Division in Downey, California. It was a status review meeting for a contract on which I was working, called the Space Transportation Architecture Study. It was a joint NASA/USAF contract, and its ostensible purpose was to determine what kind of new launch systems should replace or complement the Space Shuttle. Its real purpose was to try to get the Air Force and NASA Marshall to learn how to play together nicely and stop squabbling over turf and vehicle designs (it failed).

It was a large meeting, with many people in attendance from El Segundo and Colorado Springs (Air Force) and Houston, Huntsville and the Cape (NASA) as well as many Rockwell attendees.

As I sat there, waiting for the meeting to begin, one of my colleagues came running into the room, his face white as a freshly-bleached bedsheet. He leaned over and told me and others, in an insistent sotto voce, “I just saw the Challenger blow up.”

We stared at him in momentary disbelief.

“I’m serious. I just came from the mission control center. It just exploded about a minute after launch.”

One could actually see the news travel across the large meeting room as expressions of early-morning torpor transformed into incredulity and shock. More than most people, even with no more information than the above, we understood the implications. While there was speculation in the media all morning that the crew might be saved, we knew instantly that they were lost. We knew also that we had lost a quarter of the Shuttle fleet, with a replacement cost of a couple billion dollars and several years, and that there would be no flights for a long time, until we understood what had happened.

The ironic purpose of our meeting became at once more significant and utterly meaningless. Most of the NASA people immediately made arrangements to fly back to Houston, Huntsville and the Cape, and we held the session without them, in a perfunctory manner.

This was one of those events, like the more recent one in September, that is indelibly etched into memory–where you were, what you were doing, what you were feeling. I’m curious about any inputs from others, either in comments here or email.

Oh, and I should note that it’s an easy date to remember for me–it was (and remains still) the anniversary of my date of birth…

So today, I start another trip around the sun, and space policy remains a mess.

And it’s not just today. The Apollo 1 fire happened the day before my twelfth birthday. And Columbia was lost four days after my forty eighth. I have no trouble remembering any of these anniversaries.

50 thoughts on “Twenty-Seven Years”

  1. I was in NYC making more money than I ever did again. Now add inflation.

    My employee told me the news. I told her it was not possible. “Solid rockets don’t explode because they are not firecrackers.”

  2. I was working on the Mission Data Analysis software for the Teal Ruby satellite which was supposed to be launched that July on the Challenger. One of the developers came into the computer lab and told us the Shuttle had blown up. We told him not to joke like that, but learned that it was horribly real. It took 2 years for the Air Force to cancel Teal Ruby, and it was the first time that a national tragedy had such a direct impact personally. Sadly not the last time, but like you said you never forget when or where, or what you were doing when it happened.

  3. I was swabbing the after mess deck in USS Enterprise when I heard the news. We were a few hours out of Pearl Harbor; it was early, early in the morning Hawaii time. A guy I knew ran down from the radio shack and told me that he’d just seen the space shuttle explode. I, too, reacted with skepticism, but the look on his face told me this was no joke. We both headed up to the TV studio just in time to see the replay begin. I remember there was a crowd of sailors and officers standing around the monitor, saying nothing as we watched that shuttle come apart. After a few minutes I realized I still had my wet apron on.

  4. I was a newly minted 2Lt attending a meeting at TRW when I heard the news. When I went out at lunch, I was able to see the video for the first time. After lunch, an officer with Shuttle experience came in and gave answered questions as best he could. I remember being pretty rattled by it all.

    I wasn’t nearly so rattled by Columbia, but then I’d seen the Twin Towers fall on 9/11. Compared to that, Columbia was a relatively small event.

      1. No, I was saying that when the Columbia accident happened 10 years ago, it didn’t rattle me the way the Challenger accident did. I think seeing the WTC towers fall – killing over 2500 people – made the Columbia accident seem like a relatively small event to me, at least.

  5. Well, first off, Happy Birthday, Rand!

    Secondly, since today’s society seems hell-bent on the idea that correlation implies causation, it would seem that the only solution to averting space disasters is to prevent you from having any more birthdays.

    I hate to be the one to say it, but it’s just gotta be that way. Sorry, sir. 😉

    1. While I’m not prepared to make that sacrifice for the cause, particularly given the junk science nature of the notion, I would amusingly point out that the only Michigan basketball game I’ve watched this season (and that only the last few minutes) was the only one they have lost. So I’ll happily make the (non)sacrifice of watching no more for other Wolverine fans.

      1. Now that’s a way you could try to earn some extra money: see which team will pay you more NOT to watch them play the Superbowl.

  6. I had got up and turned on the TV because I wanted to watch the launch (excited about the first “citizen astronaut”), only to find that the network morning shows were being telecast as if nothing at all were going on in Florida (tape delay; the nets didn’t seem to think the West Coast might want to see the launch live).

    I watched and waited in disappointment for something about the shuttle launch to break in — and suddenly the happy talk was interrupted by silent video of something falling a long, long way, viewed from a long, long way off and trailing a contrail as it fell. My first thought must have been something like, “That can’t be the shuttle, it’s supposed to be going up.”

    Finally a voice came on and mystification turned to something else.

    1. Yeah, it was just like that for me. I was a freshman in college on the Left Coast, and had just gotten out of the shower, and turned on the TV to watch the launch replay during the live news bit at the top of the hour on GMA. It was the best we could hope for at the time. The screen came on, and there was water, and some big flat piece, turning end-over-end, maybe a wing, hitting the water. I knew what had happened the instant I saw it. That was one of the worst days of my life.

      On 2/1/03, I was taking my son to a party, and my wife called and said they’d lost comms with Columbia; I took the first exit off the highway, turned around, and went home, I was shaking so badly I couldn’t really drive. Jan. 28 and Feb. 1 both broke my heart.

  7. I was in German 102, and our TA had a practice of beginning each class by going around the room and having each of us tell the class an interesting bit of news. Thus I got the shocking news in rather halting German, and it took the TA and the student a few tries to sort out the necessary words to explain just what had crashed. Not an airliner, but the Space Shuttle. The one I had posters of in my dorm room.

    What we should’ve done was immediately started designing the next generation spacecraft to replace it, even as we figured out a fix for the immediate problem so the current fleet could keep flying in the interim. But no, we treated the fix like it were a permanent solution and the Space Shuttle would be our way to space forever. So we got caught by surprise in 2003, and when the remaining three orbiters got too old to keep running and had to be retired, we had nothing ready to replace them, just ideas.

    Penny wise and dollar foolish, as usual.

  8. I was a freshman in college, and working at the convenience store when the customers started coming in and asking if I’d heard the news. I didn’t see the video until later, but to this day I cannot ponder the event without tearing up. Coming a couple days before my birthday as it did, and while I was still trying to figure out the whole college thing (those were dark, terrible, no-good, very bad years), I can’t help but wonder if it played a part in my drifting from a computer science degree to international business and economics. If traveling to space was out of the question, perhaps I could travel the world. And have.
    I didn’t even consider space until the end of the 1990s, when my work with the Rotaract Club at the UN led to my writing a briefing paper on the Outer Space Treaties for the NYCitywide Model UN for at-risk inner-city youths. This led to being a delegate at the Space Generation Forum at UNISPACE III in Vienna, a trip to Space Camp where I got the Right Stuff medal for my class, a year in Strasbourg for a Master of Space Studies (cum laude, pissing off most of my scientist & engineer classmates) at ISU, a stint as program support for NASA Academy at GSFC and from there, well…it has been an awesome adventure.

  9. I was in College. College was cancelled that day due to the extreme cold.

    I was sitting home in my attic room freezing wrapped in a blanket and watched it live on CNN.

  10. The Shuttle is the totem of everything that’s been wrong with NASA manned spaceflight since the beginning. It’s a huge mess of a compromise, and it’s expensive, and worse it creates a huge opportunity cost because of its enormous ongoing operational costs. But on the flip side, it existed, and for nearly 4 decades it kept running. Because it was a political animal, it was almost parasitic in the way that it prevented its host from developing an alternative that would allow it to be cancelled. The ISS was the same way. Political down in its core.

    That’s been the nature of NASA manned spaceflight. Programs that are mostly political in nature and that become so entwined in international agreements or with so many politically connected sub-contractors that they resist cancellation. Because that’s been the best way to extort funding from congress. Only now are we starting to see a change from that modus operandi, but it’s still an uphill battle.

    1. “Programs that are mostly political in nature and that become so entwined in international agreements or with so many politically connected sub-contractors that they resist cancellation.”

      It’s the same with SLS / Orion today. There’s no other sensible explanation for the European service module. It doesn’t save NASA any money.

  11. I was at a bank downtown troubleshooting a DEC PDP 11/40. There was a TV that was brought in so that everyone working could continue to do their processing and still watch the launch. There was a collective gasp from the room. I had my head buried in what I was doing so I missed the initial video. As we watched you could hear many begin to cry. I was devastated as well. Our office there was covered with pictures of the shuttles and SST drawings. We were all in live with the space program.

  12. I was working as an electronic test tech for a laser company in Orlando Florida. In the production area we had a huge picture window facing east which allowed us to view the launches while we “worked”.

    For rest of the day the whole company walked around in a daze.

    In 1980 I worked for NASA in the SRB operations office as a student engineer. I couldn’t understand how they let the Challenger fly because we had problems having the o-rings seal for testing below 50 degrees (we pressurized the joint with helium and measured the leak rates). We knew even then that flying with cold o-rings would result in the loss of the mission and probably the vehicle.

  13. Challenger was one of the few launches we didn’t take a Shuttle break for. I was walking west on a construction site in Fort Meade, Florida when a bulldozer operator pointed to the cloud. I almost got in a fight that day with a Luddite that suggested that it served them right doing things God didn’t mean for them to do. I remember the anger almost as well as the ugly cloud.

  14. I apparently am younger than all of you. I was still in grade school. I wanted to see the launch, since by then, they quit showing them. My father, who knew several of the crew from meetings at Ellington, told me not to expect a launch due to weather. This was good news to me, because I knew many classes would be watching the launch of the first teacher in space, but I had to go to lunch before the launch occurred. It was at lunch when I first heard the news.

  15. I was in law school, studying anything I could that had a relationship to space: law of the sea, public international law, admin law. There weren’t a lot of space law courses back then.

    I just didn’t believe it.

    Happy birthday, Rand.

  16. It was the janitor who told me that the Challenger had exploded, sometime around midday, January, grad-student bleakness. I was in the transonic wind tunnels at RPI, beavering away on testing for my masters thesis. He looked so sad when he told me, I almost couldn’t understand what he had just said. My career in aerospace was just about to get underway, and I confess to having quite underestimated how this event would impact the trajectory of my subsequent career; an inadequacy as true today as it was then. Like all my other engineering fellows, we speculated on what might have been the cause of the accident. Some months later, the cover article for Time magazine, I believe, was titled “Lost in Space”, which summarized what I came to feel. Later that year, the publication ” Pioneering the Space Frontier” came out, chock-a-block full of Robert McCall’s fabulous artwork, and a dedication to the Challenger crew on page 0, and what might have been…

    1. Hah!! Another Tute-Screwed Aero! The Challenger accident was the main event that caused me to go to RPI. I wonder where I would have gone had the accident not occurred.

  17. I was working in an office job for a major insurance company, and I heard it from a co-worker who was known as a jokester. I reacted with skepticism at first, and it was then that I heard the phrase “serious as a heart attack” for the first time in my life.

    I got up from my desk and went to the TV room, where I remained for the rest of the day, watching the replay over and over. My supervisor was a little upset, and I told her to count it as a vacation day. It was only fair, since I was unable to do any work.

  18. I was underway in the Chesapeake Bay on a minesweeper (USS Inflict) that day. I didn’t hear about it until I got home that night.

    Several months later we had a Boatswains Mate report aboard who had been on the Preserver during that time. He refused to talk about what they saw during the recovery.

  19. I was a junior in high school taking a chemistry test when our sophomore biology teacher came into the room all white with a stunned expression on his face. He whispered something to the chemistry teacher and left. That’s when the chemistry teacher announced to the class, “Ladies and gentlemen, the space shuttle just blew up.”

    We didn’t believe him at first, but he insisted it was not a joke. Then we had to continue on with our test.

    The accident did change my life. I was planning to become a computer programmer after high school. Because of the tragedy I became an aerospace engineer instead.

    Happy birthday, Rand.

  20. I was less than two years out of college, sitting in the classified VAX room trying to debug a 6DOF simulation that we were porting from the Cyber 175 mainframe to VAX/VMS (turned out the bug was that there was a 48-bit-correct value of pi in one place, and a 64-bit-correct version in another place, which didn’t matter on the Cyber 175 because it was one of Seymour Cray’s oddball 48-bit machines, but did matter using double precision arithmetic on the VAX).

    One of the image processing folks who used the same VAX 11/780 burst into the room and exclaimed that the shuttle had just blown up after launch and the crew was presumed dead. We all hurried out to a break room and found a TV, then mostly sat around in a daze the rest of the day.

    The only two times I can remember being as shell-shocked at work were when McVeigh blew up the OKC Federal Building (I had to call my mom to make sure my dad hadn’t been doing business there that day) and, of course, on 9/11, when among other things there were co-workers of mine in Falls Church and they didn’t even know when they would be able to come home.

    For Columbia, I was at a swim meet, and heard about it on the radio as I was re-parking the car…

    1. I spent well into the early morning (over 12 hrs.) arguing with 4 coworkers in 3 states against a plan to compare real values. I lost and as a result over the next few years we had constant failure situations dependent on customer data which took man hours (mine) each time to fix. The guy that came up with the plan they went with later apologized because he belatedly realized I was right. It never came up again, but I would not allow myself to lose this argument in any future situation.

  21. I also have a memory of the Apollo 1 fire. I was 9 years old and saw the news bulletin on TV. My father knew Gus Grissom’s father, and I remember him calling Western Union later that evening to send a condolence telegram.

    I don’t know how my dad and the elder Grissom met, but my dad was a claim agent for the B&O Railroad, and Grissom was a signalman, according to Gus’s Wikipedia page. We lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the Grissoms were next door in Indiana.

  22. More flights. Learn from errors. Fix. Repeat. Keep repeating until there are so many flights that accidents make the news because they have become rare.

  23. I was working for a very small aeronautical engineering company, less than a year out of college, doing structural analysis using NASTRAN (ah, IBM card punch machines and the CDC network – I knew all the punchcard data-entry shortcuts). Found out at work. We had a scheduled meeting of the local chapter of the AIAA that very night. Needless to say it was a very somber affair.

  24. I was working for a company that was going out of business
    due to the same kind of mismanagement that lost Challenger.

  25. In a sales office in Dublin CA. Biggest blow hard in the office runs in and says his wife just called to say the shuttle blew up. Picked up the phone to call my wife and new mother at home with our 6 day old baby.
    She confirms the worst after Turing on the TV.
    Just celebrated daughters 27 th birthday a couple of nights last week.
    I had forgotten, sadly what happened shortly after.

  26. I was a tech writer for General Dynamics in San Diego, working primarily on the Centaur upper stage for the Shuttle–a project that was immediately scuttled as a result of Challenger. I think this was the first real national catastrophe to come along since the JFK assassination (perhaps we’re more hardened to them now), and everybody was completely stunned. At the time, I was also coming to terms with having a disabled infant, so this pretty much maxed out my emotional reserves.

  27. I was in JSC Bldg 1 for a Station Freedom meeting. No TV in the meeting room, so the meeting was temporarily adjourned so everyone could find a TV and watch. Most of us went to a nearby Work Package 2 manager’s office. I thought something looked odd near the Orbiter-ET interface just before the explosion, but it was probably just the typical glowing recirculation flow in that area, more vivid than I’d seen before due to the very-clear air that morning. At the time of the explosion, and afterwards, I can only recall silence from all the JSC engineers and managers in the room. For a few seconds after the explosion, I kept hoping the Orbiter would emerge intact from the fireball and smoke, but very soon knew that was not going to happen. I cannot remember how long we stayed looking at the TV, in silence, but eventually we returned to the meeting room and the chairman said the meeting was canceled. Several of us stayed and talked about possible causes, an SSME problem being the consensus, and what the accident would mean to the Freedom schedule.

    Next day, my Engineering Division Chief told me to go to Bldg 8 and review the post-explosion video and look for any clues about the fate of the forward fuselage/crew module. I watched the explosion over and over and over, in slow-mo and frame-by frame, selecting frames that showed what I thought was probably the forward fuselage. I asked the video techs to make several sets of still shots of those frames, and delivered them to my Division Chief. He told me to take a set to John Young for his info. I went to the Astronaut Office area, and had to get past the newly-installed guards. I saw no one in any of the offices or in the hallways. I left the set of stills with Young’s secretary and got out of there as fast as I could.

    After two hours of watching the explosion over and over in slow-mo, with the forward fuselage always forlornly tumbling away on its own with seven astronauts trapped inside, I almost became physically sick. To this day, I cannot watch a replay of the Challenger explosion; I always close my eyes or turn away or change the channel.

    One final note: My boss told me to look only for the crew module and he wanted results fast. I did not take time to look at video of the stack before the explosion, so did not see anything amiss at that time with the SRB. Three or four days after the accident, my Division Chief got copies of the KSC pad camera films showing the gray/black smoke puffs from the field joint just after launch. He showed the footage to about 10 of us and swore us to secrecy.

    Jan. 28, 1986 was a terrible day. Not as bad as February 1, 2003, for me personally, however. But that’s another story I’m not willing to share in this forum.

  28. It was less than a month after turning 30 and I cried. I was a bit shocked to find I was bawling like a small child. I commend the previous comment that we should have started the Shuttle replacement the next day (privatizing would have been better but “we weren’t there yet”.

    When Columbia was lost, my family had just sat down in a small café to order breakfast. The television announcers went on seemingly forever about the lack of contact with the Orbiter. I told my family that the Orbiter was unpowered and was going to land SOMEWHERE at the approximate time of the scheduled landing, NOT five or ten minutes “late”.

  29. I was working at home when someone on the 2 meter ham radio reported it. I immediately switched on CNN – about 1 minute from the explosion, and watched it the rest of the day. I didn’t believe them when they said the crew died instantly, either.

    The most significant news events I remember before that was the launch of Sputnik and the assassination of JFK.

  30. A coworker informed me after I had finished an 11 AM class with visiting school kids; my early days as a planetarium director in Florida. I wanted to move to Florida to be closer to the space program (my prior planetarium employer had acquired for me ‘press’ credentials to cover the first shuttle’s launch and landing in ’81).

    Reading Rand has been a re-education.

  31. I was a few months out of the USAF, and working – of all things – as a manager in a pizza store (the “career training” I got in the military would only have been useful if American and United airlines went to war with each other). I’d been a “space geek” all my life, however, since I watched Apollo 11 land at 0-Dark-thirty with my grandfather in the wilds of Pasadena on the little black-and-white TV at the age of 5.

    Since I worked until about 2:30 – 3:00AM, I didn’t wake up until around 9:00 that morning, PST – the replays had already been running for probably about 5 hours. I wandered out into the kitchen of the house I shared with 11 (yes, ELEVEN) roommates, in search of coffee. One of the few left in the house by that time – a young woman named Darci – called me from the attached family room, where the TV was: “Matt!!! You have to see this!” She gave – didn’t need to – no explanation as replay #365 played out on CNN.

    I stared at the images as the shuttle blew up, and I recall vividly my very first thought through my sleep-fuzzed brain: “Wow. About time – I can’t believe we made it this long without this happening.” (Side note: I was just relaying this to my wife, who noted that her first thought was about “the teacher – the astronauts knew what they were getting into; but she wasn’t one of them” – I honestly didn’t even think about McAuliffe in the first few minutes…)

    Don’t get me wrong – subsequent emotions were, well, what we all felt – but I remember well that very first impression. It was kind of like, we’d been riding so high and been successful for so long, I kind of hoped it would continue – but the act of doing this, of heading out into the most hostile environment possible in these fairly crude machines was SO friggin’ dangerous, I’d literally grown up knowing “these things will happen – it’s the price of exploration.”

    But, all you aerospace folk out there, consider this, from someone who has only a brushing contact with your industry (I’ve worked for a few government contractors; all in communications or high-energy physics) – even in light of that dark day and the later one in ’03:

    They built the Astronaut Memorial so huge for a reason, back after Apollo 1 – it was expected a few new names would be etched into that sheet of glass every couple years, and by perhaps 2000 would be full.

    That hasn’t happened – a couple handful of lonely names are scattered across the glorious reflective surface… and that LACK of names is all thanks to you.

    On a day of sad remembrance, take some small comfort in that – we are only human, and this stuff is insanely dangerous… but YOU have made it as safe as humanly possible.

    My hat is off to you all, even now.

  32. I was teaching computer classes for Tandem Computers in High Wycombe, England. We took a class break and some came in the break room and told me “Your shuttle blew up on launch”. I found a tv and saw the video; I was so shaken that I went into the stairwell and cried, then composed myself and went back to class. A somber day for everyone there; the English I was with were great about it. I’ll never forget that day, so far from home.

  33. I was working for a major aerospace contractor as a manual detailer. The policy in the drafting department was that radios were prohibited, but a few of us listened very quietly at our desks. Management only walked by a few times per day to check, and we turned them off when they started coming around.
    I heard the news on what I think was NPR, and let a few of my co-workers know. Word spread, and out of desks came the radios. The manager came by and heard all of us listening, and asked why we were disobeying his directive. When one of the senior designers explained what had happened, he ended the ban right then and there. Radios were out in the open for the next several years, until the man nicknamed the “Muskrat” took over.
    Happy birthday, Rand, and I hope that you have many more good years of life.

  34. I was a systems engineer for a major defense contractor, working the graveyard shift. I was home asleep when my phone rang that morning. It was a long-time friend, a reporter for one of the local TV stations, calling me to tell me what had happened. He asked me to come to the station to look at the videos to see if I could give him some idea of what caused the explosion.
    I have to say I watched the video time and time again, stunned at what I saw. I then gave him a list of possible causes. It wasn’t until I found out that it had been cold at the Cape that morning that I told him it was probably a seal failure on one of the SRBs. (Our company knew of the O-ring issues as we were involved in development of some of the Shuttle launch system components.)

  35. Rand, back in 2010 you wrote Worker Abuse. It pointed to a blog posting by Eric Raymond.

    Believe it or not, those comments have a bearing on Challenger — and so much else at NASA. Back in the mid 90s I read Stanley Coren’s Sleep Thieves. One interesting story in that book was about Challenger. The people who decided to launch that day were so sleep deprived they didn’t know what they were doing.

    Before you were born, we allowed into our country the Peenemunde team — a group of German rocket scientists who also were NAZIS. We also allowed them to import their culture — and make it an important factor at NASA.

    Guess what? This country did win the race to the Moon — at great cost in dollars. After that stunt, this country reduced space funding, in large part because Apollo didn’t really do much of anything for the country as a whole.

    We’re now saddled with a dysfunctional culture in NASA — and some other places as well. It’s proving to be counterproductive.

    After Columbia, I started giving talks on the mess at NASA. They were well received. I tried getting back into aerospace to help reform the culture. I did get some honors for some volunteer work — and then was told to go away.

    At NASA we still have people calling NASA the crown jewel of the Federal Government. Talk about out of touch with reality…. We have NASA Administrator Bolden who says people shouldn’t criticize NASA. Apparently he doesn’t understand the Columbia investigation.

    I will finish this rather long comment by pointing to a political paper I wrote titled Aerospace Workforce Issues.. It is, sadly, somewhat relevant to Challenger and Columbia.

    1. [Mary Lynne Dittmar] has expressed the view that NASA needs to start listening to people and develop a bottom up as well as a top down method of generating value.

      Bottom up is free enterprise. NASA needs to be reduced or eliminated.

      1. Ken, we agree quite a bit. Nearly a century ago the government created National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA). It helped the young aeronautical companies in major ways. It didn’t try to run the industry. Things have changed — and not for the better. NASA needs reform in free, democratic directions.

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