Space: They Slipped the Surly Bonds of Earth to Touch the Face of God

In 73 seconds, a new era in space travel explodes into a searing nightmare

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BRUCE WEAVER

Jan. 28, 1986 TIME Cover: Space Shuttle Challenger

"Where in hell is the bird? Where is the bird?" shouted a space engineer at Cape Canaveral. "Oh, my God!" cried a teacher from the viewing stands nearby. "Don't let happen what I think just happened." Nancy Reagan, watching television in the White House family quarters, gasped similar words, "Oh, my God, no!" So too did William Graham, the acting administrator of NASA, who was watching in the office of a Congressman. "Oh, my God," he said. "Oh, my God."

Across the nation, people groped for words. "It exploded," murmured Brian French, a senior at Concord High School in New Hampshire, as the noisy auditorium fell quiet. A classmate, Kathy Gilbert, turned to him and asked, "Is that really where she was?" At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., scientists turned away from their remarkable new photographs of the distant planet Uranus and stared, stunned, at the telecast from Florida. "We all knew it could happen one day," said one, "but, God, who would have believed it?"

It had happened. In one fiery instant, the nation's complacent attitude toward manned space flight had evaporated at the incredible sight in the skies over Cape Canaveral.

Americans had soared into space 55 times over 25 years, and their safe return came to be taken for granted. An age when most anyone, given a few months' training, could go along for a safe ride seemed imminent. Christa McAuliffe was the pioneer and the vibrant symbol of this amazing new era of space for Everyman. An ebullient high school social-studies teacher from Concord, N.H., she was to be the first ordinary citizen to be shot into space, charged with showing millions of watchful schoolchildren how wonderful it could be. She was bringing every American who had ever been taught by a Mrs. McAuliffe into this new era with her. It was an era that lasted only 73 seconds.

Disbelief turned to horror as the reality became all too clear: McAuliffe and six astronauts had disappeared in an orange- and-white fireball nine miles above the Atlantic Ocean. So too had the space shuttle Challenger, the trusted $1.2 billion workhorse on which they had been riding. Transfixed by the terrible sight of the explosion, Americans watched as it was replayed again and again. And yet again. Communal witnesses to tragedy, they were bound, mostly in silence, by a nightmarish image destined to linger in the nation's shared consciousness.

Then the national mood shifted. America wept. From the White House to farmhouses, Americans joined in mourning their common loss. Flags were lowered to half-staff. Makeshift signs appeared in countless cities: WE SALUTE OUR HEROES. GOD BLESS THEM ALL. President Reagan, in a moving broadcast to the nation that afternoon, paraphrased a sonnet written by John Gillespie Magee, a young American airman killed in World War II: "We will never forget them nor the last time we saw them this morning as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.' "

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