Challenger Disaster, 25 Years Later: The Five Most Chilling Moments

Categories: NASA
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the Challenger disaster, a news event that remains so vivid -- especially to Houstonians -- that most everyone can remember where they were when they learned of it or when they first saw a replay of that launch, embedded above.

That day and its aftermath triggered a wide range of emotions, from shock to anger to inspiration. There were five moments, though, that were chilling.

5. "Obviously a major malfunction."
For long seconds after the fireball erupted, and cameras simply showed the smoky trails, it was perhaps possible for people who paid no attention to the space program to think they'd seen the kind of booster separation that happens on launches. But stunned spokesman Steve Nesbitt, uttering the obvious because there was little else to say, cut off any such hope.

4. What? Cold Affects an O-Ring?
Richard Feynman was the thinking man's Carl Sagan, someone who could break down scientific concepts into easily digested information. He did it most memorably in the hearings investigating the disaster, when he showed that cold conditions can affect the o-rings that should never, ever be affected in that manner.

After he did, it was hard not to think, "Isn't that something NASA should have considered?"

3. Did they live for long on the way down?
Seeing the explosion (which wasn't technically an explosion, of course) offered only one, extremely slight, positive thought: At least they never knew what hit them.

Wrong, as it turns out. Evidence began to seep out eventually that the crew cabin had been thrown away from the flames, and that some safety procedures had been started. That brought out the ghouls -- a famous hoax transcript was believed to be true by some ("God -- the water! We're dead -- (screams in background)") -- but the actual evidence was just as eerie. Some emergency oxygen kits had been started and used. And safety switches had been toggled even though they had guards that meant a human -- and not the force of the explosion -- had moved them.

Most experts believe the astronauts survived, but almost immediately lost consciousness due to a lack of cabin pressure. A few disagree.

2. The plumes are seen
After the event, investigators studied every inch of video of the takeoff, examining it frame by frame for evidence of what happened. Soon enough they saw something: A plume of flame opening up on the rocket, where no plume should be. Knowing what happened, the plume was like the first sign of impending catastrophe.

shuttleplume.jpg

1. "Slipped the surly bonds of earth..."
We've never been the biggest fans of speechwriter Peggy Noonan's brand of treacle, but she -- and Ronald Reagan -- shone brilliantly on the day of the disaster. Reagan spoke from the Oval Office, paying tribute and assuring the space program would go on. He tended by memorably summoning up memories of the final few happy moments before the explosion when he quoted aviation poet John Magee:

The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."


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13 comments
Crumbs300186
Crumbs300186

I was born 2 days after the disaster and my dad always associates the incident with my birth since it was on the front page of all the newspapers in the UK and I'm sure the world at the time. I didn't know about it until there was a documentary 15 years later, about the Challenger and the training of the teacher they were going to send up with it.Now I associate my birth next to the disaster.

Sidewinder
Sidewinder

"Ladies and Gentlemen, I'd planned to speak to you tonight to report on the state of the Union, but the events of earlier today have led me to change those plans..."

What is often forgotten is the reason why the Shuttle was launched on that cold January day. Ronald Reagan needed a prop for hi State of the Union speech - and the Shuttle in orbit was it.

That is why NASA management overrode the judgement of NASA engineers & launched in those marginal conditions.

None
None

"Richard Feynman was the thinking man's Carl Sagan"

The crud is this?

Warren
Warren

Not knowing about the accident,I was out on a job and walked into the office of a customer and before I could say anything the customer blurted out that Challenger had exploded. Yhe news was diorienting to say the least.

Sihaya
Sihaya

I was in the sixth grade. I was a member of the Young Astronauts at my school, as were alot of kids in the halcyon days of the space program. The previous fall, all of our school windows had been rattled by a sonic boom as a NASA pilot basically buzzed Houston on his way home in a military jet. Our neighbors were all astronauts, and we would be, too.

The drama teacher had come by to tell my class what had just happened. As he was a right bugger who was prone to bad jokes, no one believed himm. As twelve-year-olds will be twelve-year-olds, a number of kids started inventing bad jokes.

Then the announcement was made on the PA. And then, of course, we all crowded into any classroom with a TV. Even the kids who were still joking after the announcement, even they just stopped. Stopped moving, stopped talking, stopped that jittery, pen-tapping, twangy staccato vibrating hum that preteens just can't quit making as they go about their business all day.

If you get outside of Houston, you'll find alot of people the same age who actually don't remember that much about the Challenger disaster. I went to college in another state; I remember in one class when we discussed historic events like the Kennedy assassination, the teacher asked if there was any event which stuck in our minds so much that we recalled where we were when it happened. When I said, "The Challenger explosion," alot of people looked at me sideways and rolled their eyes until they realized I wasn't giving the prof a smart aleck comeback. They'd never thought about it much at all. For certain places in America, the Challenger explosion was a community tragedy.

Attendee
Attendee

I remember hearing the news over lunch, sitting on the band room floor listening to the radio and being in complete shock. Having had a former teacher make one of the runner up slots was also on my mind as well as the entire Challenger crew. I was and am a big fan of NASA and their mission. The Challenger crew will never be forgotten.

Diarmada
Diarmada

Please clarify why you think "Feynman was the thinking man's Carl Sagan", because that statement makes very little sense; as BOTH are known for being "someone who could break down scientific concepts into easily digested information."

Andrew
Andrew

I went to a school that changed its name to Christa McAuliffe Elementary School right after it happened.

Jarod Frank
Jarod Frank

I was in 7th grade band class, and we were working in separate groups that day. The band director came out of his office, called everyone out of their individual practice rooms, and made the announcement that the Challenger blew up. Walking thru the halls between classes, there were rumors going around that Gaddafi had blown it up.

FarNorth
FarNorth

I will never forget that day. I was in the 3rd grade and we gathered in the library to watch it live.

dacano
dacano

I remember.... Sitting in 8th grade music class when the announcement was made over the intercom. The silence was chilling and then our teacher had us sing a hymn. Then we filed out of class to go to the library to watch the coverage. Sad, sad day....

Dave
Dave

Read Feynman's book (http://www.amazon.com/What-Car... ) where he talks about exactly this point. He considered the theory, and dismissed it. I think I'll trust his judgment on this point, rather that your obviously politically motivated blather.

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