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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    At the Vatican, Pope John Paul II asked an audience of thousands to pray for the American astronauts. He said that the tragedy had "provoked deep sorrow in my soul." In Buenos Aires, Cartoonist Dobal used his space in the Clarin to write, "I can't give you a joke because, dear reader, all my space is filled with infinite pain." Japan's public TV extended its popular 45- minute evening news program to an hour and devoted it all to the space accident. The Jerusalem Post noted editorially that "Americans take their risks in front of grandstands and television cameras for all the world to see, while the Soviets prefer to keep their launchings secret until they have been successful." Alan Castro, a former newspaper editor in Hong Kong, expressed a common new awareness of space travel prompted by the accident: "For a while there, we lost sight of the man in our fixation with the machine." Toronto's Globe and Mail pointed to the "harsh lesson that glory and adventure often go hand in hand with danger and death." On a visit to the north of Britain, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed, "New knowledge sometimes demands sacrifices of the bravest and the best. I just felt we saw the spirit of America and the spirit of the American people."

    Throughout the week, as mourning continued, Coast Guard and NASA officials undertook the grim task of searching for the wreckage of Challenger. Starting some 30 miles off the cape and then spreading out to cover some 6,000 sq. mi., 13 aircraft and more than a dozen recovery vessels joined the search of the conveniently calm Atlantic waters for any evidence that might give clues as to why the spacecraft had exploded.

    The debris raining from the sky had kept the searchers away from the possible impact area for nearly an hour. The sight of a slowly drifting parachute had given viewers a fleeting hope of human survival. News reports first indicated that a frogman had chuted into the ocean in a quick look for any survivors. But officials soon corrected both impressions: the falling parachute was one of the two that normally drop the boosters into the sea for salvaging and reuse of its parts. This one held a booster nose cap, which was retrieved two days later.

    Despite the obvious devastation of the explosion, searchers began finding surprisingly large parts of the wreckage, the biggest being a 25-ft.- long section of the spacecraft's fuselage. Parts of the shuttle's wings, cabin and cargo-bay door were tentatively identified. Sonar detected a large metal object 140 ft. below the surface, and deep-diving submersibles went down to inspect it. There was speculation that the object might be Challenger's main cabin, although a more likely possibility was that it was one of Challenger's three main engines, which could have fallen in a cluster. But Coast Guard Spokesman Lieut. Commander James Simpson warned that "it could be a shrimp boat from 20 years ago or a Spanish galleon from 300 years ago." By week's end the mystery had not been solved. Recovery workers also turned their attention to a 13-ft.-diameter orange object sighted some 100 miles east of Savannah. They were hoping that it was the cone of the main fuel tank.

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