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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    McAuliffe's mother and father had watched anxiously at the long-awaited lift-off. They appeared more somber than many of the cheering spectators. Ed Corrigan seemed to sense the tragedy first. He reached out to put an arm around his wife. Grace Corrigan's look of puzzlement turned to tears. She cradled her head against her husband's shoulder. Most of the schoolchildren were mystified. But some began sobbing as they saw the reaction of the adults. To those in the stands came a brusque order: "Everybody back on the buses." The lift-off celebration at McAuliffe's high school faded slowly. To Sophomore Marsha Bailey, the TV pyrotechnics looked like "part of the staging" in any space shot. Students began quizzing each other. Then a deep voice in the balcony shouted, "Shut up, everybody, listen!" In the silence, the televised narration of the disaster finally made the outcome all too clear. Three teachers put their arms around each other at the rear of the auditorium as one wept. Classes were canceled and the students dismissed. Principal Charles Foley explained his students' early reaction: "Someone they admired and loved has been taken away. It makes them mad. They have learned that nothing in this life is certain." He ordered the school closed for the following day and set counseling services for any teachers and students who desired it.

    Heading home from the cape, some of Concord's third-graders stopped for hamburgers in Orlando. One asked, "Well, if there was an accident, when will they come back?" Concord, nestled by New Hampshire's Merrimack River, is one of the nation's smallest state capitals (pop. 30,400). Linked like the rest of the world by the searing television images, the whole city seemed to stiffen in sorrow. Said Pharmacy Clerk Timothy Shurtleff: "People froze in their tracks." A local radio station began playing mourning music. "It's like part of the family has been killed," said Barbara Underwood, who had been watching at the library. The townspeople were not alone. The vivacious McAuliffe had come to embody each schoolteacher that any American has ever admired.

    In Washington, Ronald Reagan was getting ready to brief network-TV correspondents about his State of the Union address, scheduled for that evening. He was startled when several officials involved in the preparations burst into the Oval Office. "There's been a serious incident with the space shuttle," said Vice President George Bush. National Security Adviser John Poindexter echoed what he had just heard on TV: "A major malfunction." Communications Director Pat Buchanan got to the point: "Sir, the shuttle has exploded." Reagan stood up. "How tragic," he said. Then he asked, "Is that the one the schoolteacher was on?" While NASA had proposed sending a private citizen into space, it was the President who had decided that a teacher should be first.

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