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

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The preparation for Challenger's tenth journey into space had been painstakingly careful, and for its crew, agonizingly slow. It was an aptly all-American group: two women, a black, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent and three white men. The mission had originally been scheduled to lift off Jan. 20 from NASA's Pad 39-B, which had been refurbished after standing idle since an American crew aboard Apollo 18 left it to dock with a Soviet spacecraft ten years ago. The date slipped to Saturday, Jan. 25, after one of the other three space shuttles, Columbia, ran into delays with a mission that got relatively little notice because such flights had seemed so routine.

When Saturday dawned, Challenger's crew learned that a dust storm had developed across the Atlantic at an emergency landing facility near Dakar, the capital of Senegal. Under NASA's tight safety rules, a shuttle cannot go up unless it has a place to land if something goes wrong before it reaches orbit. Such facilities have never been needed, but every risk had to be minimized. Challenger's crew would have to wait another 24 hours.

On Sunday morning, McAuliffe, who had earlier reassured her parents by telephone that she was "rarin' to go," was set once again. Her parents, along with 18 third-graders from Concord, had flown to the cape to watch the lift-off. Christa's son Scott, 9, was in the class. Her daughter Caroline, 6, was also there but had never quite understood what her mother was doing. While McAuliffe had been in training, Caroline had asked several times by phone, "Mom, are you in space yet?"

McAuliffe and her six fellow crewmates were indeed ready, but the weather was not. A cold front was moving down the Florida peninsula, pushing showers ahead of it. While rain does not hamper takeoffs by airplanes, its impact on a space shuttle at the speeds it reaches shortly after lift-off could damage the heat-resistant tiles that protect the craft's thin skin. Challenger would not blast off even into a drizzle.

Monday looked much better. For the second time, the crew members settled into their couches on the orbiter's two decks, just ahead of Challenger's cargo bay. Commander Dick Scobee and Pilot Michael Smith were strapped into the flight deck; behind them were Judith Resnik, an electrical engineer, and Ronald McNair, a physicist. On the middeck below were Ellison Onizuka, an aerospace engineer; Gregory Jarvis, an electrical engineer; and McAuliffe. Lying on their backs, they could see a bright blue sky ahead of them. The countdown reached T (for takeoff) minus nine minutes--and stayed there for four hours.

This delay proved to be embarrassing. A sticky bolt prevented the removal of an exterior-hatch handle. Lockheed technicians called for a special drill, which took 20 minutes to arrive. When it did, the battery was dead. There were no replacements on hand. After 90 minutes of fiddling, an ordinary hacksaw was used to free the bolt.

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