Aftermath of a Tragedy

By Blake Rodman — February 05, 1986 11 min read
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What he was saying, it seemed to me, was that the healing had begun.

It was bitter cold last Tuesday as the sun rose on the clear, ice-blue sky over Central Florida’s swamps and citrus groves. Driving up to the Kennedy Center’s press and VIP viewing area, I could see the space shuttle Challenger poised for the morning’s liftoff, some three miles away on the launch pad.

The cold snap, which had forced area citrus growers to fire up smudge pots during the night to protect delicate crops, had also worried NASA officials. They had spent Monday trying to reschedule a launch date for Challenger, after a stubborn screw on the orbiter’s hatch door forced them to scrub the blastoff once again. The decision was to try for a Tuesday launch, regardless of the cold.

The VIP viewing area was empty when I arrived. Buses bearing state finalists from the teacher-in-space competition and other educators would arrive soon. I had spent the previous week with them, attending a NASA-sponsored conference, sharing brief hello’s and conversation in the hotel lobby, waiting for the event that had drawn us here.

Because of the repeated delays, work obligations had forced many of the several hundred educators here for the weekend to return home. A contingent of six from the National Education Association, including President Mary Hatwood Futrell, had left on Monday afternoon, expressing disappointment over having to miss the triumph of one of their own.

To escape the morning’s cold, I sought refuge in the press office, located on a little hill next to the VIP viewing area.

From there, at about 8:30 A.M., I watched as NASA cameras recorded what would be the last images we would see of the New Hampshire teacher who had captured the hearts and imagination of the nation, Christa McAuliffe.

Smiling that now familiar smile, she tucked her curly brown hair into a liner cap, donned a space helmet, and climbed with the six other flight-crew members aboard Challenger, the vehicle that was to carry her—and vicariously the entire teaching profession—to new heights.

Meanwhile, NASA spokesmen were telling reporters that agency officials were optimistic about the day’s launch plans. An electrical problem had been repaired, they said. Now the only apparent hindrance to liftoff was the row of icicles on the fixed launch tower. “We are checking to make sure the ice doesn’t pose any threat to the launch,” a spokesman said.

When I re-emerged from the press office at 9 A.M., the educators had arrived. I walked over to join them.

Of the 112 teacher-in-space finalists, now known as NASA’s “Space Ambassadors,” only about 30 had been able to stick it out through the launch delays. Fewer than 100 of the other 250 teachers and education officials invited to view the launch and attend the NASA conference remained.

But many of those who had endured the delays could not now endure the freezing cold. They waited in the buses.

Others wandered the VIP viewing area, mingling with other NASA-invited visitors, setting up cameras, and talking with reporters across a low, white picket fence that provided a small measure of seclusion for those not eager to meet the press. As a registered participant of the NASA-educator conference, I was able to move from the press gallery to the VIP grounds at will.

Small groups of people huddled under blankets and sheets of plastic to keep warm. A finalist spotted what he thought was a school of porpoises rolling on the flat waters of a lagoon that curled around in front of the viewing area. And off to the side, under a long yellow tent, vendors sold “mission 51-L” commemorative envelopes and souvenirs, as well as coffee.

As the countdown progressed to its final hour, the anticipation and excitement grew. “This bird is going up, it’s finally going up,” said Gerald Loomer, one of the teacher-in-space finalists from South Dakota.

“My God, this is exciting,” another finalist said. “Can you imagine how Christa feels now?”

The atmosphere was infectious. I found that I, too, had butterflies in my stomach.

When a NASA official announced that the countdown would continue after a standard hold at the nine-minute mark, a cheer erupted. The space ambassadors began moving together to an upper corner of the bleachers.

Also congregating at the top of the bleachers—under a sign with big red letters reading, “Go Christa”—was the 3rd-grade class of Scott McAuliffe, Ms. McAuliffe’s son. Scott, however, was to view the launch with his father and 6-year-old sister Caroline from the roof of the nearby launch complex.

I snapped several pictures of the class, then dashed over to where the space ambassadors stood, hoping to record their reactions to the launch.

A large digital clock down by the lagoon flashed each passing second of the countdown. At every minute mark, the teachers cheered.

“I can’t stand the suspense,” one of them said, and began leading an impromptu cheer.

“Give me a C,” she called, and the entire group shouted, “C.” They proceeded to spell out the now familiar name. “What does is spell?” the teacher asked. “Christa,” the group roared back.

It was at this point, with five minutes left in the countdown, that Margaret J. Lathaen, a teacher from Texas and one of the 10 finalists in the teacher-in-space competition, told me about a message the space ambassadors had sent Ms. McAuliffe earlier in the week. It read:

“When the shuttle goes up, there may be one teacher on board but the spirits of 2.5 million teachers and all their students will be with you.”

“We asked that she be given just this before she boarded the shuttle,” Ms. Lathlaen said, as the clock continued toward zero.

Finally, at 11:38 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, only 10 seconds remained.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven,” shouted the teachers, counting down the final ticks.

At T minus six, the shuttle engines fired on schedule, shooting out plumes of white exhaust from the launch pad. “Five, four, three, two, one,” the teachers chanted.

Then, with the deafening roar of the booster rockets and a tide of cloudlike exhaust, the shuttle, riding piggyback on its rust-colored fuel tank, rose majestically into the sky, trailed by yellow rocket fire as bright as the sun.

I could barely hear the cheering of the teachers over the roar.

I watched for several seconds, before turning to quickly snap several pictures of upturned faces, looking skyward.

Then I turned back to the shuttle—and one terrible moment in the sky.

At a minute and 15 seconds after take off, when Challenger was approximately 10 miles above the earth and traveling at 2,900 feet per second, there was a giant flash and a burst of smoke engulfed the space craft. The violent boom of the explosion followed.

At first, most of us in the viewing stands were not aware that disaster had struck. We simply thought the booster rockets had separated from the larger external tank, and we gasped in awe at the beautiful display of color and light above us.

But where was the shuttle? It had vanished. There was nothing to be seen beyond the sausage-shaped cloud that hung in the sky. And particles falling with long white contrails from the cloud.

“Flight controllers here looking very carefully at the situation,” a public-affairs officer reported over the sound system. “Obviously a major malfunction.”

The jubilation ended. Solemnity and silence ensued, as everyone scanned the sky for some trace of Challenger.

Finally, realization came with numbing force. “We have a report from the flight dynamic’s officer,” the NASA official reported. “The vehicle has exploded.”

“No, no, no, oh God, no,” someone cried.

“My God, Christa,” said another teacher, sobbing. “It just can’t be.”

Though I didn’t want to, I felt compelled to turn and record the scene on film. What I saw was looks of quiet horror, tears, faces etched with pain and disbelief, people consoling one another with a touch.

Behind me, a NASA official was asking all spectators to return to the buses immediately. But no one could move. Some of the teachers had slumped back onto the benches and sat with their hands covering their faces. Others hugged or clutched a neighbor for support. Still others stared blankly upwards.

John Cazanas, one of the finalists from Iowa, turned to me with tears in his eyes and said, “How can it be? I just don’t believe it. She was one of us. One of us.”

Slowly, people began moving toward their buses, still staring at the mushrooming above with its white streamers.

“That’s not allowed,” said Patricia P. Sturges, a teacher from West Virginia. “It’s just not allowed.” One week earlier, Ms. Sturges had told me of her dream to one day travel in space.

“When I’m there watching Christa, I’ll be watching her do what I’ve dreamed about doing,” she had said. “It will bring me satisfaction to know that somebody is up there, and that it’s a teacher.”

Shaken, I watched as Scott McAuliffe’s 3rd-grade class climbed down from the bleachers, the children staring inquisitively into the somber faces of their chaperones. The students seemed confused and unable to understand what had happened. “Where did all that joy and excitement go?” they seemed to be wondering.

Suddenly someone yelled, “Parachutes.”

A spectator with binoculars had spotted a parachute drifting through the white clouds and contrails. People gathered around hopefully. Was it possible for anyone to have survived that explosion, I wondered as I spotted the chute.

“Those parachutes are believed to be paramedics going into the area,” the public-affairs officer announced over the loudspeakers, dashing hopes that there had been survivors.

Later in the day, other NASA officials would say that the parachutes had not been paramedics, but probably chutes attached to sections of the two white booster rockets, which are normally recycled after a launch. Falling debris, they would say, had prevented rescuers from entering the crash area for nearly an hour.

Frank C. Owens, a NASA educational-programs officer and one of the organizers of the week’s conferences, was ashen-faced as he helped the teachers board one of the buses. I had talked with him earlier that morning. “It may sound corny,” he had said then, “but the energy and enthusiasm of this group of teachers could launch that shuttle.”

The viewing area was empty, the buses loaded, I turned to walk back to the press office. And for the first time, I realized how wrenching the experience had been. My entire body seemed to be shaking, a shivering that would continue on and off uncontrollably for more than an hour. I was nauseated and fatigued.

In the parking lot behind the bleachers, I met a dazed Gordon Corbett, a teacher finalist from Maine, who was searching for his car. “This is a very hurt group here,” he said, pointing toward the educators’ buses. “One minute we were participating in the excitement, and laughter and then this. Oh God, this. It’s awful.”

The press room was in a whirl. The horrific events had suddenly turned what was to have been a rather routine space-shot story into the story of a lifetime for many of the journalists here.

Trying to reach their editors and news managers, reporters massed around 10 telephones on one side of the room. While radio reporters dramatically described the explosion, writers furiously tapped out their stories on portable computers.

The team of NASA spokesmen at the press office fielded questions from all sides. But there were no answers for the journalists to report, only the gruesome details of a tragedy they had already witnessed.

Brian Ballard, editor of the student newspaper at Ms. McAuliffe’s Concord (N.H.) High School, attracted a circle of reporters as he described how he felt watching the explosion.

“It was very frightening,” he said. “My heart went from my chest down into my legs.”

Brian said he had not known Ms. McAuliffe very well. “But I sure wish I had,” he added.

I left the newsroom to get some fresh air and walked down by the viewing area, now quiet and empty. The American flag, snapping in the wind on a pole down by the lagoon, would soon be lowered to half mast. A few wispy clouds lingering out over the Atlantic were the only trace of the morning’s events.

As a former teacher myself, I kept thinking of those I had stood beside on the viewing stands and of all the teachers and students watching the event on television across the nation. This was to have been their day. It all seemed so wrong, so unfair.

Late that night, as I was waiting for my flight home, I called Mr. Owens, the NASA official who had accompanied the teachers back to their hotel in Orlando.

He said there had been only silence and tears on the return trip, but that back at the hotel the teachers had spent “a quiet time together” talking about Ms. McAuliffe, her mission, and what their mission would now be.

All of the teachers, Mr. Owens said, had indicated that, regardless of the day’s tragedy, they would apply again for a trip on the shuttle.

He also said the teachers remained committed to carrying out the work Ms. McAuliffe had begun.

“They all felt that Christa would have wanted them to continue their work to improve education in this country,” Mr. Owens said.

“You know,” he added, “a lot of good comes out of adverse and difficult times.”

What he was saying, it seemed to me, was that the healing had begun.

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