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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    But now gusts up to 35 m.p.h. began sweeping across the Kennedy Space Center. Any malfunction immediately after lift-off would call for an "RTLS," return to launch site. Either Scobee or Smith could fire bolts that would release the orbiter from its external fuel tank and two booster rockets. Challenger could then loop swiftly back to Kennedy's landing strip. Nonetheless, the crosswinds were too strong for a sure landing. No such emergency had ever been encountered, but once again NASA took the prudent course: yet another delay.

    Waiting out this frustrating postponement at the cape, Ed Corrigan, Christa's father, said wryly, "I would have gotten the hacksaw sooner." Commented his wife Grace: "I would have gotten my nail file." One veteran consultant to NASA was less charitable, asking, "Can you imagine a pad leader permitting an s.o.b. to show up for work with a drill with a dead battery?"

    That night, temperatures fell to an unseasonable 27 degrees , but the wind dwindled to 9 m.p.h. On Tuesday, Jan. 28, the clear morning sky formed what glider pilots fondly call "a blue bowl." Even before Challenger's crew, wearing gloves against the chill, crossed the access arm to take their assigned places, NASA's "ice team" had inspected the shuttle and its towering gantry. They decided that there was no danger of any icicles breaking away on lift-off and harming the heat-shield tiles. Just 20 minutes before the scheduled lift-off, they made another check. A Rockwell engineer in California, watching by closed-circuit TV, telephoned the cape to urge a delay because of the ice. But Kennedy Space Center Director Richard Smith, having been advised that there was little risk, permitted the countdown to continue.

    "We're at nine minutes and counting," intoned NASA Commentator Hugh Harris over the cape's public address system. His words were also broadcast widely by radio.

    Shivering reporters, photographers, schoolchildren and other spectators cheered. The countdown was past the point where it had stopped the day before. The mission designed to show that space belonged to everyone finally seemed ready to launch both its schoolteacher and the dreams of the children participating vicariously from their schools. On Challenger's flight deck, roughly the size of a Boeing 747's, Scobee and Smith continued to run through their elaborate checklists. The orbiter's main computer, supported by four backups, continuously scanned all the data from some 2,000 sensors and data points. They would shut down the entire system in milliseconds if anything was wrong. Nothing was.

    "T minus eight minutes and counting."

    Thousands of motorists in the cape area, listening to their radios, pulled off highways and faced the ocean. On Challenger's middeck, Onizuka, Jarvis and McAuliffe had nothing to do except wait. At dozens of points around the globe, radar tracking stations had now synchronized their antenna systems with the countdown sequence in Florida.

    "T minus seven minutes, 30 seconds and counting."

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