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


    Jan. 28, 1986 TIME Cover: Space Shuttle Challenger

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    On Capitol Hill, Pennsylvania's Republican Senator Arlen Specter asked President Reagan to name one of the Education Department's buildings after McAuliffe so that "her sacrifice will live forever in the memory of this nation." New York's Democratic Congressman Gary Ackerman introduced legislation to designate Jan. 28 of each year as a permanent National Teacher Recognition Day. Florida's Democratic Congressman Bill Nelson, who, like Garn, had flown on a shuttle, proposed that seven of the newly discovered moons of the planet Uranus each be named for one of Challenger's victims. Colorado Republican William Armstrong went a bit further, asking the Senate to name ten moons, adding the three Apollo astronauts who died in the 1967 launch-pad tragedy as well. Democratic Representative Mickey Leland of Texas urged that the "true heroes" all be posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. At the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, a photo of Challenger's crew, draped in black ribbon, was placed beside a 12- ft.-high model of the shuttle. The museum kept running a film, narrated by Walter Cronkite, with scenes of Judy Resnik and Dick Scobee on previous space missions. The documentary is called The Dream Is Alive.

    For Jay Schaeffer of Belmont High School in Los Angeles, personal gestures caught the national mood. Schaeffer had been one of the teacher semifinalists in the competition to lift off on Challenger, and despite the disaster, he still yearns for a flight. "I would go today, right now. I wouldn't even go home to change," he said. But he appreciated the students who gently touched his shoulder on Tuesday. "It was an affirmation of life." For students, he explained, "a teacher in space becomes their teacher. Do you know an astronaut? Everyone knows a teacher."

    America's agony drew widespread sympathy around the world. In Moscow, a somber TV announcer spoke factually about the disaster as videotapes of the aborted flight were broadcast throughout the Soviet Union. American music, including old Glenn Miller recordings, were broadcast on radio. Soviet Party Chief Mikhail Gorbachev quickly joined the multitude of world leaders who sent condolences to President Reagan. "We partake of your grief at the tragic death of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger," he said.

    Surprisingly, the Soviet newspaper Socialist Industry reported that Soviet officials had decided to name two craters on the planet Venus in honor of McAuliffe and Resnik. The Soviets had discovered the craters via space probes. Only the women among the American space victims were selected because the Soviets respect the view in Roman mythology that Venus is the goddess of beauty. Several Soviet cosmonauts sent a collective note of sympathy directly to NASA. Soviet citizens seemed to share the sentiment. "When something like this happens," said a Moscow factory worker named Yelena, "we are neither Russians nor Americans. We all just feel sorry for those who died and for their families."

    Only later did the Soviet press begin to carp that capitalist competitiveness had been responsible for undue haste in U.S. space projects. Komsomolskaya Pravda charged that the accident showed the frailty of Reagan's antimissile Star Wars program and asked, "What if lack of caution, a technical defect or sheer chance should bring the world an unforeseen nuclear war?"

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