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The Day Reality Rained Down

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I remember, vaguely, a flash of light. This vagueness of memory always has puzzled me. Perhaps I had looked away for a moment and missed the actual explosion. Or perhaps this was one of those times when the mind cannot process what the eyes see. The flash was followed by a wild scattering of contrails across the pale January sky. Spectators in the grandstands cheered. Most of them, like myself, had come as novices to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

“Was that supposed to happen?” I asked a reporter standing beside me.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

This was a science writer who had covered many shuttle launches, and his uncertainty speaks to the confusion that washed across Cape Canaveral in those first slow seconds. Light travels faster than sound, of course, and what we were seeing unfold 9 miles overhead was contradicted by what we heard on the ground. There was a flash, yes, but no sound of explosion. Instead we heard only the steady, uninterrupted roar of the engines and rockets. The single plume that had marked the progress of the spacecraft had blown into a chaotic scramble, and yet the NASA public address system kept delivering the chatter of a normal launch.

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“Roger, go at throttle up.”

Static.

“Velocity 2,900 feet per second, altitude nine nautical miles, range distance seven nautical miles.”

I do not know how many seconds it took for the sound of the blast to travel down. When it arrived, it did so like a thunderclap, rattling the metal grandstands. And then it abruptly ceased, replaced by a strange and terrible quiet. Overhead hundreds of projectiles were streaking silently across the sky. Some were quite large and sped along as if with a purpose; they could have been jet airplanes. More aerodynamically awkward pieces tumbled straight down into the Atlantic. Even from a distance of miles, the splashdowns were visible, plop, plop, plop. This bad rain lasted a long, long time.

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My notebook from that day, dutiful scratching through the countdown and liftoff--"Thirty-eight degrees” . . . “birds scatter” . . . “NASA voice: ‘an adventure in education!’ ” . . . “launch” . . . “clear plume"--goes blank about one minute into the launch. There is no description of explosion or roar or messy sky. I remember telling myself: Don’t write. Look. See. Remember. The entries resume with a barely legible two-word quotation from the public address system:

“Major malfunction.”

Followed by:

“The vehicle has exploded.”

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*

By the 25th launch of the shuttle, NASA had become intoxicated by its own public relations. It had sold the shuttle as a “space bus,” a machine to make travel beyond the Earth’s pull routine business. Flight 51-L of the Challenger, with schoolteacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe aboard, was supposed to mark the transition.

As I write this today, 10 years later, I have at my feet a cardboard box. It contains notebooks, press releases, pictures and investigative reports gathered from my coverage of the Challenger and its aftermath. Here, for example, are notes from a prelaunch press conference given by Barbara Morgan, a schoolteacher who trained as McAuliffe’s backup. “The space program,” she says here, “doesn’t belong to just astronauts and science. It belongs to everybody.” That was the spirit, then.

While normalcy was the designated Challenger story line, normalcy rarely is the stuff of news. Except for a small clique of NASA junkies, most journalists no longer were interested in shuttle launches. The McAuliffe flight was seen as a gimmick, nothing more. I myself attended under mild protest, reluctant to suspend my reportage on a feature about California raisins. That alone should illustrate sufficiently the general interest level in shuttle missions at the time.

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NASA’s insistence on promoting the shuttle as reliable mass transit infected more than just press relations. The entire agency, we all would learn soon enough, had felt pressure to maintain the story line, to make shuttle flights seem as routine and safe as a ride on a subway--maybe even more so, given the perils of public transit in many American cities. Ambitious flight schedules were not to be broken. Engineering concerns--problems, say, with the proper sealing of rubber O-rings--were to be resolved quietly on the fly, or not resolved at all.

The era of test flights was finished. After teachers in space, there would be journalists in space followed by, who knows? Accountants in space. Carpenters in space. Maytag repairmen in space. To what purpose? This was less clear. The late Richard Feynman, the great Caltech physicist who helped investigate the Challenger explosion, later would capture with a single sentence the dangerous decadence that had crept into the NASA mind-set: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Of course Feynman wrote from hindsight. In real time, to invoke a little NASA-speak, there were only the most subtle clues--at least for public consumption--that the shuttle program had lost its way. Now from out of the box comes, incredibly enough, a Kentucky Fried Chicken press kit. On its cover is a logo of a chicken straddling a space shuttle, with a title: “Chix in Space.” Beneath that is the familiar face of Col. Sanders. Inside the packet are notes of comments from a bright-eyed Purdue sophomore. On the day before launch he was describing for reporters how, as part of his KFC-sponsored experiment, astronauts would hatch 32 eggs in an incubator. One hatching was scheduled for Feb. 14:

“So,” he bubbled, “there will be Valentine’s Day chicks in space.”

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My notes do not reflect whether anybody laughed at this. Today, the idea of seven people lost on a mission to explore the feasibility of space chickens yields darker emotions. Yes, there were more important experiments on board. But it was the space chicken kid they trotted out for the reporters.

Another notebook page from the box, a single entry: “Not unaware of the consequences.” I remember this one: It came at the end of a conversation with a savvy NASA official just in from Washington. The launch had been scrubbed for a day. First, a hatch bolt had become stuck. Then winds had kicked up. Finally, the pad crews were said to be fatigued. That afternoon I interviewed this NASA functionary. The topic was how to maintain the balance between public relations and congressional support and science and flight protocol. In this context, we discussed the Super Bowl, which was to be played later in the day.

By postponing the flight, the Challenger launch now would not have to fight for top billing on the nightly news with the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots. A Challenger launch on Monday would dominate the news and allow the crew to communicate with--or at least be mentioned by--President Reagan in his State of the Union address Tuesday.

How big a factor would all this be in the decision to delay for a day? Oh, my source had said, that sort of public relations payoff alone would not determine the issue. And yet, he added, the decision-makers certainly were “not unaware of the consequences.” And then he smiled a worldly little smile.

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*

The next morning: I remember thinking there was no way they would do it. For one thing, it was freezing cold, with ice everywhere. Also, less rationally, it looked so startlingly crude, this machine they had placed on the launch pad. The spacecraft was fastened to an enormous tank filled with liquid hydrogen and oxygen. The tank, for reasons of aerodynamic thriftiness, is never painted. The visual effect was this: It looked to a novice eye as though some jokers had taken a small plane, lashed it to a rusted-out grain silo, filled the tank with gas--and now they were going to put people inside and light it all up? They were.

Later, veteran hands would say that the launch never looked right from the start, that the angle and speed had seemed ominously out of kilter. The data would not support this observation, but human premonition is a funny thing. I was told later that morning that McAuliffe’s mother had been the first in the grandstands to know.

The human reaction to the explosion was understandably weird, a monument to denial. I saw a NASA official literally running around in tight circles, shouting in acronyms: “RTLS! RTLS!” It meant, “Return To Landing Site,” but later he would admit, sheepishly, that he knew there could be no return for the Challenger. I heard another yell something about hitting the “ditch switch.” As though the crew could hear him. As though there was a “ditch switch.” (There was not.) Similarly, there was talk of paramedics diving into the ocean crash site. This didn’t happen. There was no place for the paramedics to dive. The wreckage was everywhere and sinking fast.

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Good information was impossible to come by. Eventually, someone suggested a visit to the “contractor’s trailer.” It was located next to the domed building where reporters work. Here, before the launch, public relations experts had passed out press packets and fielded technical questions about shuttle parts. Here too reporters had received free coffee and doughnuts, served by a crew of elderly women: the doughnut ladies, they were called. Should anything happen, a PR expert had assured me only the day before, you come see us in the trailer. We’ll be there.

And now, an hour after the explosion, we discovered the trailer door was locked and bolted from the outside. We knocked anyway. Someone knocked back, faintly. A maintenance man was found to unbolt the door. Out came one of the doughnut ladies, slightly disoriented. After the explosion, in their haste to evacuate before the reporters descended, the brave public relations experts had missed this poor woman and locked her inside.

*

Late in the afternoon, the man in charge of the launch was brought out for a briefing. A cold wind blew and Jesse Moore hunched down inside a brown trench coat. His face was distorted, mottled. I wrote in my notebook that it looked as though he had been belted across the eyes with a 2-by-4.

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He spoke of impounding data and organizing an investigation. He said there had been nothing “unusual” about the flight, until it blew up. He would take no questions about cause. This seemed to make sense. The way I saw it, the shuttle had been scattered in small pieces across the Atlantic, taking the clues of its demise down to the bottom. How could anybody be expected to figure out what had gone wrong?

Like so many first impressions that day, this one too missed the mark. They knew, some of them, almost the moment it happened. They did not have it nailed down, of course. Duty dictated they not leap to conclusions. Still, they knew. They had heard--as the nation would hear weeks later--the engineers warn that cold could keep rubber O-rings from sealing properly in the solid rockets. They had ignored this, gambling that the failure of the primary rings would ensure seating of otherwise unreliable secondary rings. It was a bet that required an intricate series of events unfolding in their favor within 3/10ths of a second. They had lost, and they knew it.

“If I were you,” a NASA official had told me softly, and out of the blue, after Moore’s briefing, “I’d start to learn all I can about the inner dynamics of the solid rockets, how the sections are put together and sealed. Things like that.”

It’s funny. I never was comfortable with the newspaper label that was attached to the explosion: A tragedy, we all termed it. That first night, as I sat in the dome, my first story filed, I felt not sorrow--a response to tragedy--but rather anger. I was angry at the reporters who, with a barely masked zeal, were now pouring into the press dome. I had exhibited that same big-story blood lust myself many times before; it was not a pretty thing to see. I was angry at the NASA public relations juggernaut--space bus, Chix in Space, Super Bowls. And I was angry at myself.

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It seemed to me then, and it seems to me now, that I had been drawn to the circus to see some folks blasted from a cannon, and they had died. In such a case, can the audience be any less culpable than those who lit the cannon? As for the astronauts, I wasn’t sure what to think. I was sad for their families, but I figured six out of seven of them probably had known enough not to buy into the NASA baloney. They made their choice and, heroically, died with it. As for the schoolteacher, I couldn’t be so sure.

For a long time, the crew deaths seemed not quite real to me. They were seven names and file footage. I couldn’t imagine what it had been like for them up there. Then NASA released a small but chilling fact. The shuttle was equipped with reserve air tanks, for use, I believe, in an emergency on the ground. After the flash, the evidence showed, one of the crew members had remembered the tanks, improvised. The backup air was turned on. At least some of the crew apparently sucked from this makeshift supply for several minutes, all the way down.

I often have wondered since which, if any, of the projectiles I had watched hurtling across the sky that day contained the crew. I have wondered what they thought and what, if anything, they could see in that 9-mile descent. It would have taken a while. Did they have time to make out the Florida coastline? Could they spot the Cape? The launch facility? The grandstands? Could they see us better than we could see them?

In any case, I have not watched a shuttle launch since.

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