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The Challenger saga: An American space tragedy

NBC’s Jay Barbree recounts the beginnings of the Challenger space tragedy in the first of an eight-part series.

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.


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.”

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 in January 1997.