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Chapter 4: A hellish fireball

In the fourth chapter of an eight-part series, NBC’s Jay Barbree recounts the horror of the 1986 Challenger explosion.

Flames from inside the booster rocket had escaped through the failed O-ring seal and enlarged the small hole, growing into a monstrous blowtorch as they burst through the lower joint of the right booster.

The torch slashed through the lower half of the huge external fuel tank that stored the liquid hydrogen that fed the three main engines. The lower half of the tank collapsed, then the entire tank followed in swift disintegration.

The lower support strut attached to the right rocket booster broke away. The blazing rocket swiveled on its upper strut to send the nose of the booster crashing into the top of the tank, freeing liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen fuels from the tank and booster to mix disastrously and ignite.

Where there had been only cold blue sky pierced by a bright flame atop a climbing white smoke trail, there appeared a hellish fireball. Instantly it bulged into a massive flaming monster. Metal tore jaggedly, shattered into debris that that would continue to climb, tumbling and cartwheeling through curving arcs, until gravity commanded their downward fall. Two corkscrew spears of white smoke spun twisting paths higher into the clear blue sky, the rocket boosters flaming uncontrolled, burning as if in mockery to the disaster from which they fled.

The explosion expanded in a scattering of debris, creating hundreds of burning and twisting fingers and tendrils of smoke, all seeming to try desperately to escape the terrible blast. Burning debris fluttered and whirled oceanward.

A hairline streak of red arched up and then over in a curving line. It would be long remembered. Challenger’s crew vessel with its seven occupants was fleeing the flames and devastation.

In this one ghastly, terrible moment, the very air over the America’s spaceport seemed to burn.

Thunder echoed and boomed earthward, sky echoes of a climbing rocket, deep rumblings from the berserk lunging of the boosters.

Beneath the ominous groans from the heavens, thin wailing cries and screams reached upward toward where Challenger died.

Inside Mission Control
Inside Mission Control near Houston, NASA Commentator Steve Nesbitt followed the flight-mission script before him. He kept up his litany of progress, reporting the main engines were now burning at their full thrust of 104 percent. He continued to read his prepared notes to match flight times and progress. He was totally unaware of what had happened to Challenger.

“One minute and fifteen seconds, velocity two thousand nine hundred feet per second, altitude nine nautical miles, downrange distance seven nautical miles.”

Nearby, a flight controller gestured frantically to him. Nesbitt turned to see where the controller was pointing with such agitation. He stopped reading, disbelief gripping him like a giant fist as he stared slack-jawed at the expanding fire cloud on the huge television monitor that adorned the walls of the control center, at the twisting smoke trails and the flotsam of burning debris raining toward the ocean.

Nesbitt slumped in his seat. He hurt as if a house had dropped on him. He sat, stunned, feeling as if his blood drained from his body.

But he was on duty. He still had his job to do. He shook off the helpless feeling, rallied his senses and keyed his microphone. “Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation.”

He felt helpless to explain what was really happening. He must report only what he knew for certain. “Obviously,” he heard himself saying, “a major malfunction.”

Nesbitt turned off his mike.

Stunned and shocked
Back at Florida’s Launch Control, Hugh Harris fared no better than Steve Nesbitt. He was stunned, in shock, staring vacant-eyed through the big window behind him. Even as he searched the tumbling, burning debris and corkscrewing smoke trails for some sign the crew was still alive, the scene before him refused to penetrate his own reality, that there could be that much fury and destruction in the sky.

It was ... unbelievable. So inadequate a word! What made it all the more terrible was the tremendous personal emotion felt for the Challenger crew. They had shared with these people, an alliance of a professional and personal family. Harris sat in his emotional cocoon of shock and kept asking himself how in the name of God this could have happened.

On the roof observation deck of the Launch Control Center, in the brilliant sunlight beneath the pockmarked sky, NASA escorts were doing everything possible to move the distraught, sobbing families away from the horrifying spillage of charred debris raining downward to the ocean waters.

The children of Challenger pilot Mike Smith stood rooted to where they had been when the blast split the heavens. The horror of what had happened, was still happening, hammered at their senses.

“I want my father!” they wailed as one voice. “I want my father! He told us it was safe!” Then they lost their voices in tears and choking misery.

Inside the Associated Press trailer at the press site, veteran aerospace reporter Howard Benedict worked furiously to get out the story to the world as quickly as possible. He was dictating over the phone to the AP’s New York desk. His first paragraph was already available as a news bulletin on every wire and he was into his second paragraph:

“There was no immediate indication on the fate of the crew, but it appeared that nobody could have survived that fireball in the sky.”

He paused momentarily, felt the air freezing about him. “Mother of God,” he whispered.

Howard Benedict was wrong.

A decade after the accident, the best evidence tells experts that Challenger’s seven astronauts did not die in the blast.

What a Presidential Commission failed to learn, what NASA’s own investigations studiously ignored, what the contractors who built the shuttle knew, what no one wanted to even mention, what was too horrifying to acknowledge, was that the seven astronauts of Challenger lived from the moment of the explosion until they smashed at great speed into the sea.

Theirs was truly the longest ride down.

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.