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« When Pork Flies | Main | Another Intifada? »

Ad Astra Per Ardua

Sixteen years ago today, 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...

Posted by Rand Simberg at January 28, 2002 09:27 AM
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I was a sophomore in college. I had just returned to my dorm room from an early class, and I saw my roommate staring at the TV in stunned disbelief. "The Space Shuttle just blew up," he said. I sat down and watched the endless replays of the tragedy. Until Sept. 11, it was probably the one disaster that was most indelibly etched in my mind.

Posted by Media Minder at January 28, 2002 03:30 PM

I was a freshman in high school, we were watching the launch in my newspaper/journalism class. Our instructor jumped up after a minute and called the office and then he cried. 14-year-old boys don't cry so I sat there in shock with the rest of the one else at the school had seen it. Ironic, our yearbook that year had a theme, "On Our Way Up" which featured a full cover picture of an earlier Challenger launch, chosen at the beginning of the school year.

Posted by at January 28, 2002 07:16 PM

I was a senior in college. I heard about it in the dining hall. We had to scramble to find a television and watch it happen over and over - just like the coverage on September 11.

On the other hand, a friend of mine was able to catalogue over 25 jokes about the Challenger she had heard by the next day (which she handed in as a writing assignment). The tragedy was not large enough to damage the insulation of youth and detachment.

My uncle knew Christa McCauliffe (sp?)reasonably well. He's a journalist who lived in Concord NH most of his life - (

My sister was in an academic department meeting in Florida on September 11. Someone came in and alerted them to the WTC attacks. After a brief pause, they went on with the meeting. As a native New Yorker She was sort of appalled and walked out.

Posted by Andreas at January 29, 2002 03:02 AM

I worked at Sprint in those days as a telecom engineer. This was in Burlingame, CA; and I would generally get to my desk by about 8:30. I had a train ride first, from San Francisco where I lived, and then a ten minute or so walk.

One of my colleagues at Sprint at that time was a guy named Gary Gandrud. Gary was a former Navy spook, and was still one in the reserves. A tall guy, with a puckish sense of humor. He made me laugh, and he also played lots of practical jokes on everyone.

He came up to me and told me that Challenger had just blown up. For about a half second I thought he was pulling my leg, since he knew what a space freak I was.

And then I looked at his face.

I'd heard the cliche' about people turning as white as a sheet before. But until then I'd never ever seen a human being look that way.

Posted by Tim Kyger at January 28, 2005 06:51 AM

I was in fifth grade, and on a school field trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. All the kids were with the various parents acting as chaperones. My teacher big space geek, who was also excited about Christa being on the launch, stepped away, leaving her group with one of the parents so that she could see the launch. She didn't come back, she sat in the bus crying, until we all came back from the various tours.

Posted by Wickedpinto at January 26, 2006 02:58 PM

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