Nation remembers Challenger heroes on 26th anniversary

HOUSTON (RNN) - Twenty-six years ago, the space shuttle Challenger exploded after lifting off its launch pad at Kennedy Space Center, engulfing the entire nation in a wave of tragedy.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," said President Ronald Reagan on the evening of the accident, Jan. 28, 1986. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'''

And forget them, the nation has not.

Where were you when the Challenger exploded?

It was like Pearl Harbor. It was like JFK's assassination. It was like 9/11 and the day Elvis died.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded before a live TV audience of mostly schoolchildren, it left a permanent mark on the psyches of most Americans who were old enough to remember.

The Raycom News Network took an informal Facebook poll and asked people where they were when the Challenger exploded. We received more than 200 responses in less than an hour.

Bobbi Rahanek was an 8-year-old in North Dakota, and her mother kept her home to watch the launch. She was sitting on the floor watching the shuttle go up when it exploded.

"I screamed and cried and asked my mother if we could go there to help save them," she said. "When she told me no, I ran to my room and cried forever. To this day it saddens me for all of them and their families. What a tragedy and a dark day for us all."

Jodell Johnson-Bridge of Murrells Inlet, SC, was in Disney World in Orlando, FL, about 55 miles from Cape Canaveral, where the space shuttle launched.

"Everyone was looking up, thinking it was all routine," she said. "I will always remember the moment as a sad one, a moment when I was watching lives come to an end."

Shannon Bizzell Gray of Tampa, FL, was in the eighth grade at St. Bede Catholic School in Montgomery, AL. She said she remembers sitting in silence after the tragedy.

"Which says a lot for a bunch of eighth graders. All the kids just looking at each other like, 'That didn't just really happen did it?' They turned the TV off pretty quickly after it happened, and we just tried to go back to normal school life."

But for the schoolchildren who witnessed the tragedy, nothing about the day could ever be normal. For that generation, it was the first time they realized their heroes - their teachers - could vanish in a plume of smoke.

[Click here for more recollections of the tragedy]

Like most Americans, NASA spokesman Kyle Herring remembers exactly where he was that fateful Tuesday morning.

Herring was a reporter at that time of the explosion. He happened to be on vacation and was forced to return to Washington that same night to get back to work.

Herring said the initial result of the Challenger was a great deal of internal scrutiny for NASA.

"The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed," read the Rodgers Commission Report, which was commissioned by Reagan to determine the cause of the accident.

While the explosion was linked to the cold weather, which froze an O-ring in the shuttle's right solid rocket booster, the committee deemed poor managerial decisions to be a contributing cause of the accident.

"Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position," the report continued. "They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell's concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decision makers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986."

That meant NASA needed to change the way it did business.

"The Challenger changed management philosophies, which have carried on even to today," Herring said.

Herring pointed out that the furthering of human exploration "never waned in the wake of the accident."

He said the answer to the Challenger's legacy lies therein: to continue human exploration as far as possible.

The Challenger disaster should be viewed as one of those blips on the radar that led to the progression of "something much greater than what we've done before," Herring said.

Originally scheduled to launch on Jan. 22, 1986, at 3:43 p.m., the Challenger's launch was pushed back multiple times, mostly due to weather, until its eventual launch on Jan. 28.

The space shuttle Challenger took off at 11:38 a.m. on pad 39B of Kennedy Space Center.

According to NASA's space shuttle mission archives, smoke began to spew from the shuttle's right solid rocket booster at approximately .678 seconds into the flight.

Seventy-three seconds into its flight, at an altitude of 46,000 feet, the Challenger exploded, killing its seven-member crew.

The crew had been scheduled for a seven-day flight, which would return to Kennedy Space Center 144 hours and 34 minutes after it left the launch pad.

The crew consisted of Commander Francis R. Scobee; Pilot Michael J. Smith; Mission Specialists Judith A. Resnik, Ellison S. Onizuka and Ronald E. McNair; and Payload Specialists Gregory B. Jarvis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe.

Jarvis and McAuliffe were to have observed and photographed Haley's Comet, perhaps the most crucial part of the mission.

McAuliffe, the best remembered of the crew, was chosen to be the first private U.S. citizen in space. In July 1985, she was selected from more than 11,000 applicants nationwide as the primary candidate for NASA's Teacher in Space Project.

McAuliffe held a master's degree in education from Bowie State University and taught English and American history from 1970 until her death.

She was scheduled to perform two lessons from space, "The Ultimate Field Trip" and "Where We've Been, Where We're Going," on the sixth day of flight.

Her participation in the space shuttle program brought a newfound public interest in the program, as McAuliffe made several public appearances.

In an interview during the time leading up to her mission, McAuliffe said her mission was a dream.

"We all have to dream. Dreaming is OK. Imagine me teaching from space, all over the world, touching so many people's lives. That's a teacher's dream," she said. "I have a vision of the world as a global village, a world without boundaries. Imagine a history teacher making history."

At the time of the incident, Shawna Gallagher Vega was a newborn, and she doesn't remember a time in her life when she didn't know about McAuliffe.

McAuliffe's legacy left a profound impact Vega, 26, who went on to become a history teacher herself and earned her two degrees from Boston College, where McAuliffe's father attended college.

Copyright 2011 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved. Sources: Space Shuttle Mission STS-51L Press Kit via the NASA History Program Office and the Curriculum Library, Archives and Special Collections of the Henry Whittemore Library at Framingham State University.