The Challenger Accident: A Personal Recollection 30 Years Later

I was a Control/Prop instructor in NASA’s Mission Operations Directorate at Johnson Space Center and watched the Challenger’s launch from the lobby of Building 4 where there were televisions displaying the NASA V launch feed.  At the time, the first floor of the building housed the flight controllers, the second the crew/flight controller trainers, and the third the astronauts. There was a bunch of us from both the crew trainer and flight controller shops, including Linda (Hautzinger) Hamm, a Prop flight controller at the time (as was Wayne Hale, though I don’t remember him being down there with us that day).

I was watching a close up of the vehicle’s profile as the last events in the accident chain began.  I saw a flash down low and one up high…about where the SRB sep motors were…and thought I was seeing a premature separation of the solids.  My mind seemed to kick into high gear at that point, because I saw what appeared to be a flame front moving at high speed from the rear of the vehicle toward the front.  I remember mumbling to myself, “Oh, God, tell me I’m not seeing this!!”, something I did two more times as the vehicle quickly broke up.  I remember seeing a shot of the pieces of vehicle debris raining down into the ocean, and I remember Linda Hamm approaching me because of my familiarity with the high-speed flight environment (F-14A) and asking me if I thought anyone could have survived.  I responded simply by shaking my head “no”.

As the shock hit all of us, I went back up to the office and pulled down the SODB (Shuttle Operational Data Book) and started searching constraints to find a clue about what might have gone wrong.  A constraint concerning the Solid Rocket Boosters’ Propellant Bulk Temperature jumped out at me. Had we launched at a temperature below the requirement?  I did have the right subsystem and the right contributing cause, i.e., launching in a temperature that was too low for the current design, but not the exact cause; the propellant bulk temperature was actually higher than the limit even though the external temperature was colder and the problem was actually at a case segment joint.  A day or two later, as photographs poured across the breaking news, my training team’s Mechanical Systems instructor, Randy Barckholtz, shared a newspaper photo showing the vehicle breakup as it was occurring. He pointed out what appeared to be the crew cabin exiting the conflagration.  I didn’t think he was right; but he was.  We all had our little pointers toward the truth of what had occurred, as we all realized later.

It’s hard to put into words how hard this hit me.  They weren’t my crew and the only one on the crew I had worked with has been Francis Scobee; he had been the pilot on the 41C Solar Max mission I had worked my on-the-job stint on.  Still, I felt as if someone very close to me had died. I went home and kept the TV’s and radios off; I had already been repeatedly bombarded with reminders of what had happened as I stood in the line at a nearby bank to get some cash after center operations had been shut down and everyone sent home.  The pain took a long time to wear down to the point where I could stand to watch the video of the conflagration without wincing, even though I had been exposed to sudden death as a matter of course during my time in Naval Aviation. 

When they held the public memorial service at the Space Center which President Reagan attended, I stayed back in the office and watched it on TV, feeling guilty about not being there but personally preferring not to be out in the crowd.  During the investigation that followed, like a lot of people at JSC, I prepared some data for the Rogers Commission to examine.  It was background information on how we trained astronaut crews for dynamic flight phases; I was glad to be doing something directly connected to helping us understand what had happened to prevent it from happening again.  I read everything I could get on the accident, and thought about what I could learn from it.  A decade later, when I became the lead engineer and an ascent specialist for the Safety and Mission Assurance console in the Mission Engineering Room, I made sure that, in addition to having my data displays set up to show critical data at a glance, I always had a TV feed of the launch vehicle up.  The accident had taught me that…for some critical systems and the vehicle’s whole state…you could see things happening there even before the data from the vehicle could make its way down to you, be processed, and be displayed.  (The Columbia accident demonstrated this again.)    I had hoped I would never see another catstrophic shuttle accident again during my time at JSC, but that was not to be. I would also be even more in the middle of the events of the Columbia accident, but that is a story for another time.