Video: Challenger: Beyond the Tragedy

By Correspondent
NBC News

In an exclusive eight-part series, NBC News' longtime Cape Canaveral correspondent, Jay Barbree, recounts the inside story behind the 1986 destruction of the shuttle Challenger, in which seven astronauts lost their lives.

There’s cold. Then, there’s cold. In late January 1986, a frigid weather front rolled southward out of Canada and headed straight for Florida. The rare, bone-chilling freeze gripped unsuspecting palms and palmettos, stiffened and cracked rolling groves of citrus and froze Florida’s sprawling Kennedy Space Center to a slow crawl. The spaceport — making use of the latest electronic miracles and a step ahead of the cutting-edge of technology — had never felt such a chill.

During the predawn hours of Jan. 28, temperatures fell below the freezing mark. Frost appeared on car windshields, and ice fog formed above canals, swamps, lakes and salt-water lagoons. Alarmed forecasters predicted a hard freeze in the low 20s by sunrise.

Not a single tropical insect moved in the frigid stiffness. Birds accustomed to warm ocean breezes huddled in stunned groups. Fire and smoke rose from smudge pots set across Florida’s citrus belt in last-ditch attempts to save the budding produce.

Along the beaches beneath the towering rocket gantries, only the sparkling white form of space shuttle Challenger appeared unconcerned about the freeze. It stood bathed in dazzling floodlights, its metal and glass and exotic alloys unfeeling of the arctic air.

The great spaceship appeared to be a monstrous ice sculpture above the framework of its launch tower.

Night vanished, and sunrise brought the first hope of warmth — and the seven astronauts — to the launch pad.

They rode the elevator up to the walkway of the service tower that led to the “White Room,” the dirt-free enclosure surrounding the entry hatch to the shuttle crew cabin. The NASA television cameras showed the astronauts shivering as icy wind gripped them.

As they walked along the bridge 195 feet above the pad to their launch vehicle, the astronauts took only careful, short steps — so they wouldn’t slip and fall on icy patches.

Politically correct
No one had ever seen a more “politically correct” crew. It was a public relations dream, made to order for worldwide acclaim. You simply could not ask for more: two white women, an African-American man, an Asian-American man and three white men.

Second only to the politically correct stature of the flight team was the selection of a social science teacher from one of the bastions of America itself: New Hampshire. Sharon Christa McAuliffe was smart, experienced, courageous, had a smile big enough to adorn any magazine cover and was a brilliant selection by NASA for the coveted role of the planet’s “first citizen in space.”

This one woman had emerged from an enthusiastic wave of more than 11,000 applicants giving their all to become the one individual selected for NASA’s acclaimed Teacher in Space Project. Her audience of well-wishers went far beyond her contemporaries and the everyday citizens who wished her well and prayed for her success. Millions of schoolchildren eagerly awaited her departure from Earth on a mountain of fire created by the shuttle’s twin rockets. She would blaze her own trail in the footsteps of such giants as Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Sally Ride, Alan Shepard and the others who had defied the odds to reach Earth’s orbit and beyond.

Make no mistake about the intent: McAuliffe wasn’t going into space as a scientific or engineering member of the crew. She was leaving Earth to command the attention of the world and awestruck American schoolchildren. Having squirmed beneath congressional brickbats and attempts to slash the NASA budget, even to do away with the superbly engineered but devastatingly expensive shuttle program, NASA stoked the Teacher in Space extravaganza as the perfect response to dull the political ax held against it.

You could scrub an astronaut, cancel a mission, condemn a fleet — but you did not, in any way, shape or form mess with Apple Pie, Mom and Our Sainted Teacher.

Cloudless, perfect sky
“This is a beautiful day to fly,” Cmdr. Dick Scobee said as he stopped on the walkway to the entry hatch. To Scobee, the cloudless, cold sky was perfect — conditions that experienced pilots called severe clear. It was true: On such a clear day you could see forever, and from 20 stories above ground the crew beheld a sparkling, shining string of ocean breakers in the curving surf along the cape’s coastline to the south.

Smiles, grins and words of agreement followed Scobee’s great pleasure with the cloudless heavens. One by one, the spacefarers donned their helmets and, with the assistance of the specialists, climbed through the hatch into the deep and wide recesses of the crew compartment.

As McAuliffe prepared to enter Challenger, a member of the close-out crew presented the teacher with a shiny red apple. It was a nice public relations touch for those watching on television, including the families of the astronauts who sat three miles distant in their VIP suite.

But in spite of the “public relations portrait” being painted, Challenger was in every respect a contained iceberg. That the presence of so much ice was a clear and present danger to the launch team was demonstrated when the countdown reached its standard 10-minute hold at T-minus nine minutes in the count. This time the call was heard loud and clear.

“Hold!”

Launch control explained the delay. The standard hold in the countdown would be extended. The count would be held here at T-minus nine minutes for hours, if necessary, until the temperature rose to 40 degrees. Everyone looked at the sun, beseeched its warming rays.

But the warmth of the sun on the outside could not solve the problem of the critical O-ring seals within the solid rocket boosters. Without the direct rays of the sun, they would stay cold, hard and brittle all day. And the more brittle the O-rings, the greater the chance they could not perform their job.

The synthetic rubber O-rings’ design purpose was simple enough: seal the joints so tightly they would prevent violently hot gases from escaping as spears of flame.

It was a daunting task for any piece of equipment; in the case of the shuttle, the O-rings were like a rubberized David holding back a whole battalion of Goliaths.

During several earlier shuttle missions, disaster did everything it could to crawl into the shuttle launch system and turn it into tumbling flaming wreckage. The primary O-rings on those flights suffered severe erosion from superheated gases, sometimes accompanied by lesser erosion. And the erosion had occurred after launch temperatures much higher than on this freezing Florida day — 53 degrees was the lowest launch-time temperature up to that time.

The booster engineers felt helpless. For months, they had been studying the O-ring seal problem. They knew a disaster was coming, but no one stepped forward and said, “Stop this train until it’s fixed.”

If there was a failure and a crew was ... but they didn’t want to think about that. But, now, NASA obviously was going to launch on the heels of a hard freeze.

'Welcome to space, guys!'
At about 11 a.m. ET, launch control notified the Challenger crew that it was definitely warming up outside their ship. Things were looking up. The launch team anticipated resuming the count shortly.

“All right!” came the enthusiastic response from Scobee.

At Mission Control in Houston, flight director Jay Greene polled his team for their final status report. Launch director Gene Thomas ran through his checklist items with his team in launch control in Florida. It was a familiar and critical litany of last-moment review and checks.

Every response was “Go!” Not a single call to stop.

Inside the crew cabin, Scobee and pilot Mike Smith went with precision through their final checks.

All seven astronauts locked their helmet visors in place. They rechecked their seat harnesses one final time to assure that every man and woman was strapped in securely. Scobee told his crew, “Welcome to space, guys.”

Next: ‘Here we go!’

NBC News correspondent Jay Barbree has covered America’s space effort from Cape Canaveral for more than 40 years. This is an updated version of a series that was first published on MSNBC.com in January 1997.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: The Challenger tragedy in pictures

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  1. From joy to tragedy

    The shuttle Challenger's mission in 1986 was meant to mark a milestone in spaceflight: the first orbital voyage of an American teacher. NASA's choice for the honor was Christa McAuliffe, a social-studies teacher at Concord High School in New Hampshire. Here, McAuliffe rides past the New Hampshire State House in Concord with her daughter Caroline and son Scott, during a Lions Club parade on July 21, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Packing for Houston

    High-school teacher Christa McAuliffe folds her training uniform as she packs for the trip to Johnson Space Center in Houston on Sept. 8, 1985. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Preparing Challenger

    The space shuttle Challenger is transferred to the high bay of the Vehicle Assembly Building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 17, 1985. Inside the cavernous VAB, the Challenger orbiter was mated with its solid rocket boosters and external tank in preparation for its launch a month later. (Terry Renna / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Zero-G and she feels fine

    Christa McAuliffe gets a preview of microgravity on NASA's specially equipped KC-135 "zero gravity" aircraft on Jan. 13, 1986. The plane flies in a parabolic pattern that provides short periods of weightlessness. For some people, those bouts of zero-G can induce nausea - which is why the airplane was nicknamed the "Vomit Comet." (Science & Society Picture Library / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. To the launch pad

    The shuttle Challenger is delivered to its launch pad at NASA's Kennedy Space Center atop a mobile crawler-transporter. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Practicing for an escape

    Challenger's crew members practice the procedure for escaping from the launch pad at Kennedy Space Center using slide wire baskets. From left are Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis and Christa McAuliffe. Directly behind them are astronauts Judy Resnik and Ellison Onizuka. The basket system was designed to take the astronauts off the pad quickly if an emergency arose just before launch. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Ready for flight

    Challenger's crew members stand in the White Room at Launch Pad 39B after a dress rehearsal for launch. From left are Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, pilot Michael Smith and Ellison Onizuka. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Heading for the pad

    Challenger's crew members leave their quarters at Kennedy Space Center for the launch pad on Jan. 27, 1986. Commander Dick Scobee is at the front of the line, followed by Judy Resnick, Ronald McNair, Gregory Jarvis, Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe and pilot Michael Smith. NASA had to scrub the launch attempt on Jan. 27, due to high winds at the pad, and liftoff was rescheduled for Jan. 28. (Steve Helber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The first sign of trouble

    A launch-pad camera captures a close-up view of the shuttle Challenger's liftoff on Jan. 28, 1986. From this camera position, a cloud of gray-brown smoke can be seen on the right side of the solid rocket booster, directly across from the letter "U" in "United States" on the orbiter. This was the first visible sign that a breach in the booster's joint may have occurred. Investigators determined that frigid overnight temperatures caused the booster joints' normally pliable rubber O-ring seals to become hard and non-flexible. The failure of the seals caused hot exhaust gases to blow through the joints, cutting into the external fuel tank. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Liftoff!

    A wide-angle view shows the ascent of the shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. In the seconds after ignition, the rocket engines' hot blast began the process of destruction. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Ice at the pad

    Why did the O-rings fail? On the day of the shuttle Challenger's launch, icicles draped structures at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The unusually cold weather, beyond the tolerances for which the rubber seals were approved, most likely caused the O-ring failure. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Watching the launch

    Classmates of the son of America's first teacher-astronaut cheer as the space shuttle Challenger lifts skyward from Launch Pad 39B on Jan. 28, 1986. Their delight turned to horror as the shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight. The boy in the white hat and glasses at center is Peter Billingsley, the star of "A Christmas Story" and a spokesman for the young astronaut program. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The final seconds

    The right solid rocket booster on the shuttle Challenger begins to explode, just a little more than a minute into the shuttle's ascent from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. (NASA via AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moment of tragedy

    An orange fireball marks the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. (Bruce Weaver / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Remains of the rockets

    At about 76 seconds, fragments of the orbiter can be seen tumbling against a background of fire, smoke and vaporized propellants from Challenger's external fuel tank. The left solid rocket booster is still shooting skyward. A reddish-brown cloud envelops the disintegrating orbiter. The color is indicative of the nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer propellant in the orbiter's reaction control system. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Flying fragments

    This picture, released by the presidential commission that investigated the Challenger tragedy, shows fragments of the orbiter flying away from the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986, 78 seconds after liftoff. The top arrow shows the orbiter's left wing. The center arrow shows the orbiter's main engine; and the bottom arrow shows the orbiter's forward fuselage. Investigators suggested that some of Challenger's crew members may have survived the explosion itself but died in the fall down to Earth. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. The tragedy sinks in

    Flight director Jay Greene studies data at his console inside Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center in Texas, just minutes after the announcement that Challenger's ascent was not nominal. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A family's sorrow

    Members of teacher-astronaut Christa McAuliffe's family react shortly after the failed liftoff of the space shuttle Challenger from NASA's Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 28, 1986. Christa's sister, Betsy, is in front, with parents Grace and Ed Corrigan behind. (Jim Cole / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Death of a celebration

    Carina Dolcino, senior class president at Concord High School, is stunned by the news that the space shuttle carrying Christa McAuliffe, one of the school's teachers, exploded after launch on Jan. 28, 1986. Students watched the launch on television sets scattered throughout the school in Concord, N.H., and a celebration had been planned for a successful liftoff. (Ken Williams / Concord Monitor via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. White House watch

    President Ronald Reagan, center, is surrounded by members of his senior staff on Feb. 3, 1986, as he watches a TV replay of the Challenger shuttle explosion at the White House. From left are Larry Speakes, deputy White House press secretary; presidential assistant Dennis Thomas; special assistant Jim Kuhn; Reagan; White House communications director Patrick Buchanan; and chief of staff Donald Regan. (Peter Souza / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Sympathy at school

    Lisa Mitten of Concord, N.H., wipes tears from her eyes as her daughter Jessica reads some of the letters of sympathy that were on display at Concord High School on Feb. 1, 1986. Hundreds of Concord residents visited the school library to see the many telegrams and letters that were sent from all over the United States. (Toby Talbot / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Recovering debris

    Debris from the ill-fated shuttle Challenger is unloaded from the Coast Guard cutter Dallas during February 1986. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A piece of Challenger

    For weeks after the accident, search and recovery teams went out to retrieve Challenger debris from the Atlantic Ocean, with the help of the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy. Vessels brought pieces of debris to the Trident Basin at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, from which they were shipped to Kennedy Space Center for investigation. The Coast Guard cutter Dallas transported this fragment of exterior tiling. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Retrieved from the ocean

    A piece of debris from the space shuttle Challenger is hoisted onto the deck of the Stena Workhorse off the coast of Florida during a recovery mission. (Time & Life Pictures via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Farewell to the fallen

    The remains of the shuttle Challenger's seven crew members are transferred from seven hearses to a MAC C-141 transport plane at the Kennedy Space Center's Shuttle Landing Facility, for transport to Dover Air Force Base, Del. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. In memoriam

    President Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, stand with the wife of astronaut Michael Smith and other family members at a memorial service for the victims of the Challenger disaster. (Diana Walker / Time & Life Pictures via Getty Image) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Grim investigation

    Apollo 11 moonwalker Neil Armstrong, a member of the presidential panel investigating the Challenger explosion, listens to testimony before the commission in Washington on Feb. 11, 1986. Another commission member, David Acheson, listens in the background. A model of the space shuttle sits on the table. (Scott Stewart / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Solving the puzzle

    Search and recovery teams located pieces of both the left and right sidewall of the shuttle Challenger during the months-long retrieval effort that followed the explosion on Jan. 28, 1986. Heat and fire damage scarred the right sidewall. But the left sidewall, depicted here, escaped the flames and suffered only from overload fractures and deep gouge marks. The largest intact piece formed part of the payload bay sidewall and measured approximately 30 by 12 feet. (NASA Headquarters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Washed ashore

    Some pieces of the shuttle Challenger did not surface until long after the explosion. A tractor carries one of the shuttle's elevons after it washed ashore on Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Dec. 17, 1996 ... almost 11 years after the loss of Challenger and its crew. (AFP-Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Day of remembrance

    Every January, NASA recalls the Challenger explosion as well as other space tragedies on a "Day of Remembrance." Here, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe lays a wreath at the Space Shuttle Challenger Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Jan. 28, 2003. O'Keefe also paid tribute to the three astronauts of Apollo 1 who died in a launch pad fire on Jan. 27, 1967. Sadly, seven more astronauts died just days after this picture was taken, on Feb. 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry. (Bill Ingalls / NASA via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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