29 January 2016

Challenger—Obviously, A Major Malfunction


Spoken by Pilot Mike Smith, those were the last recorded words from the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, 30 years ago yesterday, January 28th.

I was at the Kennedy Space Center as a photographer and member of the press corps until two days prior to the launch of Challenger and mission STS 51-L. There had already been a few delays in the countdown and with very cold weather moving in, it looked like it would be a while before they would launch.

I distinctly remember asking NASA's KSC Public Affairs Manager Ed Harrison, on Sunday, the 26th, about the schedule. Eddie assured me that they would be delayed at least another four to five days. I had commitments for a couple commercial photography jobs that week, so I drove home to Fort Lauderdale, planning to return later toward the end of the week when Eddie said they'd "probably get a go" for launch.

It was more than a year before I again drove through security to the KSC Press Site.

Why did they launch when it was so cold? President Reagan's State of the Union speech was scheduled for that evening, and I believe that Reagan wanted Teacher-in-Space Christa McAuliffe up there so that he could talk about her—the first civilian (non-astronaut) in space. I believe that the White House put tremendous pressure on NASA to "get that bird in the air!"

It flew for 73 seconds.

Most people don't know what happened next, and I'll bet you're one of them. Yes, you know that all seven are members died...

Did you also know that:

  • The crew survived the explosion of the external tank (ET) and the resulting breaking apart of the orbiter, only to die about 2-1/2 minutes later as the crew compartment hit the ocean's surface at ~200 mph? 
  • They were almost certainly conscious all the way to impact?
  • Although it took six weeks to recover the first crew remains, NASA knew the location of the crew compartment only days later?
On 13 November 1988, the cover story in the Miami Herald's Sunday Magazine, "Tropic", was an expose of the events leading up to and following the destruction of the Challenger. I kept an original copy for over 25 years and included it in the donation I made to The Museum of Flight in October 2014.

The article lives on on-line and I strongly recommend you read it. Click here to access it. If you cannot find it, send me an email and I will forward a PDF to you.

Please read the article and take a few minutes to remember the seven pioneers who gave their lives that day...


  1. Heart wrenching memory. I thought of you as I listened to the report on NPR Thursday. I did not know you at the time of the horrible tragedy. I only learned of your passion years later and you never spoke of that day. Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us. I feel anger and deep sadness. I am going to read the article through your link. I hope others who visit your blog will too.

  2. Thank you. I never could get through the complete video and am very thankful that I was not there that day to see it live.