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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    In Houston, Commentator Nesbitt had kept his eyes on the programmed flight data displayed in front of him, not yet aware of the images of disaster appearing on the TV monitor to his left. He reported what normally would have been the readings from Challenger. "One minute, 15 seconds. Velocity 2,900 feet per second (1,977 m.p.h.). Altitude nine nautical miles. Downrange distance seven nautical miles." To millions watching their own screens, Nesbitt's narration was surreal. They had seen the fireball.

    There was a 40-second pause and silence on the screen as viewers stared in baffled horror. Then, his voice still calm, Nesbitt announced, "Flight controllers are looking very carefully at the situation." He added quickly, "Obviously, a major malfunction." His unemotional tone did not change. Communications with the craft had been severed, he continued. "We have no downlink."

    On the consoles in front of Nesbitt and the rows of technicians on duty in Houston, a series of S's froze on the monitoring screens. They signaled "static." No data were coming from Challenger. The range safety officer at the cape pressed a button to destroy the two boosters by radio. Although it was first reported that one had been skittering toward coastal population centers, NASA later conceded that both had remained well out to sea. But NASA's range safety officials had to react in seconds. With the destruction of the boosters went the possibility that if retrieved from the water, they & might have provided valuable evidence of what had gone wrong. After another pause of 40 seconds, Nesbitt pronounced the fateful verdict: "We have a report from the flight-dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that."

    "RTLS! RTLS!" yelled former NASA Engineer Jim Mizell, watching from the press stands at the cape. He looked up in vain, and in horror, expecting Challenger to arc away from the unnatural cloudburst and return safely to the landing strip. In the VIP bleachers, only a few experienced viewers immediately sensed the disaster. To the naked eye, the flames were diluted by the distance. Many thought the explosion involved a normal separation of the boosters from the main tank and orbiter. That maneuver was to have occurred at two minutes, seven seconds into the flight.

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