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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    After Reagan told a group of students and teachers in August 1984 that he wanted a teacher to be first, more than 11,000 applied. NASA officials felt that a key quality for the winner was the ability to articulate the values of space exploration. McAuliffe, who came across as a public relations natural, survived all the screening at Johnson Space Center. At a White House ceremony with the ten finalists last July 19, Bush announced that she was the winner. She would carry only "one body," into space, McAuliffe said happily, but the "ten souls" of all the finalists would be riding with her.

    After training for three months, the teacher and her more experienced crewmates were ready for their multiple mission. McAuliffe's task was to ! conduct two 15-minute classes in space as millions of schoolchildren watched via closed-circuit TV. In one, called "The ultimate field trip," she would conduct a tour of the spacecraft, explaining the duties of each crew member and the facilities on board. The second, titled "Where we've been, where we're going, why?," would stress the scientific, commercial and industrial benefits that have been derived from space travel.

    The other specialists on Challenger had less publicized but important goals. The mission carried a $100 million NASA satellite, the second in a series designed to fill the communications gaps that now exist between orbiting spacecraft and ground stations. Among the experiments the crew was scheduled to conduct was the deployment of instruments that would measure the ultraviolet spectrum of Halley's comet. Another was to sample radiation within the spacecraft at various orbit points. There was even a student project in which the effect of weightlessness on the development of twelve White Leghorn chicken embryos would be studied.

    All those laudable projects vanished, of course, with Challenger's demise. But it was the loss of the seven humans, the realization that shuttle flights involve much more than a wondrous display of mechanical and electronic wizardry, that set off spontaneous expressions of grief across the U.S.

    In Atlanta, Tuesday afternoon was sunny, but motorists switched on their car headlights as a tribute. In Los Angeles, the Olympic torch atop the Memorial Coliseum was lighted anew in honor of the space victims. Governor James Thompson of Illinois, before leaving on a trip to Japan, had asked citizens of his state to turn on their porch lights at night during Challenger's mission to express support for the teacher-in-space project. After the tragedy, he telephoned a request that they keep them on Wednesday night as memorials to the fallen heroes. Many other communities paid comparable tributes. The floodlights that normally bathe New York City's Empire State Building in bright colors were darkened. Residents of Harlem petitioned Mayor Ed Koch to name a street after black Astronaut Ronald McNair, whose father once operated an auto shop on East 96th Street. All along the Florida coast, from Jacksonville to Miami, some 20,000 people pointed flashlights skyward on Friday night.

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