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(NOTE: The following is a fictionalized account of the 15 days in January 1986 leading up to the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster on the 28th of that month; however, the details of weather and NASA events are based on known historical data.)

Titusville, Florida
Tuesday, January 28, 1986
High Temp: 46° F Low Temp: 32° F

Challenger and crew clear the tower

Where do I start? Seven amazing, wonderful, smart people lost their lives today. None of us can come to terms with the reality of what happened.

The morning was cold. We opened the water valves on Launch Pad 39B overnight to keep the lines from freezing and ice was all over the pad. Still, that should have not been a problem, nor caused a disaster. We had a delay of two hours because of an equipment failure on the pad, but the fuel and crew were loaded normally and Challenger launched at 11:38 AM.

Ice on Launch Pad 39B after water release to protect pipes

There were no warnings, no alarms, no indication of a problem. At 73 seconds after liftoff a massive cloud surrounded the vehicle and we lost sight of it. Then the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) emerged at the top of the cloud and continued on followed by pieces of debris. We knew that something had happened but it was over a minute before it became apparent that the Orbiter had not survived.

The impact on everyone was a wall of emotions. The feeling of loss because the seven astronauts were our family. The feeling of empathy for the astronaut’s families for their loss. The feeling of anxiety as to if there was something we did that caused this tragedy and the need to find answers as quickly as possible. The loss was made even harder as we all watched helplessly seeing the remains of STS-51L fall into the ocean. Many of us held out hope of the miracle until it became apparent there would not be one.

Much of what happened does not make sense. Any rocket-based vehicle is a flying explosion waiting to happen, but everything possible is done to keep the volatile chemicals from interacting until they reach the nozzle. The cloud was apparently the result of a sudden burn of fuel from the External Tank, which doesn’t necessarily mean it was a violent explosion. If there was an explosion, why did the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRBs) escape, seemingly untouched. Challenger has been cursed with Main Engine problems, so some wonder if one of them failed causing the External Tank (ET) to breach and the fuel to burn, but again, why didn’t the SRBs also explode? 

There has been discussion that the cold might have caused a problem with the seal around the joint of a SRB, but why would that destroy the External Tank (ET) and Orbiter, but have seemingly little or no impact on the SRBs? It is apparent that the ET is key to explaining what happened. A joint could fail and hot gas escape that is aimed directly at the ET, which could cause an explosion, but a joint is 360°around and less than 25% of a joint faces at or near the ET. Odds of a first time failure of a joint facing the ET after 25 missions are ridiculously low.

STS-51L Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judy Resnik, Mission Commander Dick Scobee, Ronald McNair, Pilot Michael Smith, Ellison Onizuka in White Room on 8 JAN 1986

The biggest question on everyone’s mind is the one no one wants to discuss. What happened to the crew? The Orbiter and ET emerged from the cloud in fragments and some were large enough to be the area where the crew sat during launch. Most of us believe that they were killed instantly, but no one will rest peacefully until we know what happened to them. 

The scope and breadth of this tragedy is far beyond what I could have imagined. Somehow we all have to move forward, but we’re all trying to deal with what happened. Moving forward doesn’t seem possible, right now. The first step in moving forward will be to understand what happened.

TOMORROW: What Happened to STS-51L