I do. I was in 10th grade history class with Coach Koonce. I think we were studying the Assyrians, but I could be wrong about that. Most classes had a TV in them to watch the launch since it was the first time a teacher would go to space. Ours didn’t have a TV but there was one on a cart out in the hall that the teacher was planning to use for a later class or something. The teacher from the class next door (Mrs. Roy, if I remember correctly) rushed in and told the coach to get that TV and turn it on immediately because something had happened to the shuttle.
Shuttle mission 51L was much like most other missions. The Challenger was scheduled to carry some cargo, the Tracking Data Relay Satellite-2 (TDRS-2), as well as fly the Shuttle-Pointed Tool for Astronomy (SPARTAN-203)/Halley’s Comet Experiment Deployable, a free-flying module designed to observe tail and coma of Halleys comet with two ultraviolet spectrometers and two cameras.
One thing made this mission unique. It was scheduled to be the first flight of a new program called TISP, the Teacher In Space Program. The Challenger was scheduled to carry Sharon Christa McAuliffe, the first teacher to fly in space.
Selected from among more than 11,000 applicants from the education profession for entrance into the astronaut ranks, McAuliffe was very excited about the opportunity to participate in the space program. “I watched the Space Age being born and I would like to participate.”
Besides McAuliffe, the Challenger crew consisted of mission commander Francis R. Scobee; pilot Michael J. Smith; mission specialists Ronald E. McNair, Ellison S. Onizuka, and Judith A. Resnik; and payload specialists Gregory B. Jarvis. Christa was also listed as a payload specialist.
From the beginning, though, Shuttle Mission STS-51L was plagued by problems. Liftoff was initally scheduled from at 3:43 p.m. EST on January 22, 1986. It slipped to Jan. 23, then Jan. 24, due to delays in mission 61-C and finally reset for Jan. 25 because of bad weather at transoceanic abort landing (TAL) site in Dakar, Senegal. The launch was again postponed for one day when launch processing was unable to meet new morning liftoff time. Predicted bad weather at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) caused the launch to be rescheduled for 9:37 a.m. EST, Jan. 27, but it was delayed another 24 hours when ground servicing equipment hatch closing fixture could not be removed from orbiter hatch.
The fixture was sawed off and an attaching bolt drilled out before closeout completed. During this delay, the cross winds exceeded limits at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility. There as a final delay of two hours when a hardware interface module in the launch processing system, which monitors fire detection system, failed during liquid hydrogen tanking procedures. The Challenger finally lifted off at 11:38:00 a.m. EST.
Seventy three seconds into the mission, the Challenger exploded, killing the entire crew.
On March 1, 2002, I was on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center for the launch of STS-109. Columbia lifted off at dawn on a flight to rendezvous with the Hubble Space Telescope, on a mission to repair damaged parts and upgrade the telescope’s electrical system and vision. There’s nothing quite like a shuttle liftoff — the extreme brilliance of the ignition, the roar and the power surge and the billowing cloud as the gigantic craft slowly lifts off the pad to begin its rise toward space. In a few seconds the shuttle with its fuel tanks went from a standstill to orbit. It seemed anti-climactic after the flight’s delays and the anticipatory build-up. Later that day I flew to Houston to spend the next few days in Mission Control, watching the astronauts work on the telescope on live video feeds. In the middle of the spacewalks we would walk outside and look up into the night sky, and at the appointed time a bright object looking like the brightest star you’ve ever seen would slip across the sky. It was the shuttle with Hubble attached, their reflectivity bright enough to make them visible as a dot from the ground. At 17,000 miles per hour, the dot took maybe three or four minutes to cross the sky above us. Those astronauts overcame technical issues with their space suits to conduct some of the longest EVAs ever conducted. Hubble got its new eyes.
These days we take space flight for granted. It’s just part of the background of our era. The Challenger disaster, and the disaster that would strike Columbia on her next mission after STS-107 on February 1 2003, ought to remind us that above all the science and technology, it takes the courage of intrepid men and women to keep us in space and reaching for the stars.