Twenty-one years ago, the Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off the launch pad at 11:38:00.010 a.m. EST (T = 0 seconds). During later investigations, a large puff of black-gray smoke was seen coming from the right-side solid rocket booster (SRB) at 0.678 second, 2.733 seconds, and 3.375 seconds into the flight.
The capsule communicator (CAPCOM) told the crew that they were “go at throttle up” at 68 seconds into the flight, and the Shuttle Commander responded with a “Roger, go at throttle up.”
At 73.162 seconds, Challenger began to break up at about 48,000 feet (14.6 kilometers) above the surface of the Earth. In the Mission Control Center (MCC) at the Johnson Space Center (Houston, Texas), an overhead black-and-white television monitor at Dynamics (DYN)—one of the backroom support positions for the Flight Dynamics Officer FDO)—showed an erratic plumb of smoke that, now, so eerily reminds people of that day: January 28, 1986.
At 73.628 seconds, the last of the telemetry data was transmitted from Challenger.
Around 89 seconds after liftoff, the Flight Director (FLIGHT), who coordinates the flight controllers, asked the FDO, who directs the shuttle’s flight path, for information. The FDO responded, “The filter has discreting sources”. Such a response told the Flight Director that the vehicle had broken up into many pieces.
The Ground Controller (GC), who coordinates the space flight tracking and data network, stated: “We have negative contact. Loss of downlink.”
Mostly numbing silence was felt throughout the MCC.
Seven people should be remembered from that day: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe.
This reporter stood at the DYN console in front of the overhead black-and-white television monitor that January morning. It is good to recall failures so that successes will be more frequent and more gratifying in the future.
Any ambitious project as large and complicated as manned space exploration is bound to have failures. However, from the writings of Spanish-born American author George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
As a follow-up, a good story authored by Richard Corfield about Apollo 1 and STS 51-L appears on The Washington Post Web site: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/01/26/AR2007012601593.html.