Friday, January 28, 2011

January 28, 1986

Two roommates and I lived off-campus during our final two years of college. We either carpooled to campus, or I'd bike there when the weather was nice. Precision became a bit of a game for us - how close could we cut it by leaving the apartment, deal with just a bit of college-town traffic, find a place to park, and still make it to our seats before the professor?

On January 28, 1986, one of my roommates headed to campus early to take care of some things. Chris and I stayed behind and said we'd catch-up with him.

One of the reasons we were waiting to go was because Chris wanted was to see a shuttle launch. He said he'd never seen one on TV before. I gave him a hard time about it because I'd seen many of them through high school and early college years. The timing of the launches was never really predictable because of altered schedules, mechanical delays, weather, etc. But the way the launches happened predictable. The thing rises slowly from the pad on a column of flame, the TV cameras struggle to focus as the orbiter gains speed and altitude, the solid rocket boosters separate gracefully and fall away, and the shuttle and main fuel tank continue until out of TV range. The whole process was predictable - yet I never tired of watching them. I couldn't believe Chris had never seen one.

We easily had 15-20 minutes to spare before class to watch the launch. The engines ignited, and the shuttle lifted from the pad - just as expected. Once it ascended a bit, something odd happened. The solid rocket boosters separated in a crazy, accelerating, smoke-belching pattern - not the graceful way as was the norm. Also, the booster separation was normally preceded by a *poof* of smoke - some sort of charge they used I guess to get rid of them. This time we saw a big fireball.

Having seen many launches, I knew this wasn't normal. Both of us stared at the screen, and Chris then said quietly "Is it supposed to do that?" I think I muttered something to the effect of "Um, no. Daayyum."

The TV folks picked up on the problem, and then we heard the voice from Houston through TV: "Obviously a major malfunction."

We watched a couple of more minutes and then clicked off the TV to head to class. We knew. Chris and I weren't the only ones in class to have seen it happen live; however, we were in the minority and began to spread the word of what we'd just seen.

25 years ago. It still just doesn't seem possible.

On Saturday morning, February 1, 2003, sadly and incredibly I witnessed the loss of a second shuttle live on TV as the story was unfolding and again in the presence of someone who'd never watched a shuttle launch or landing - my young son. I remember flashing back to the scene on TV in our college apartment's living room in 1986 when my son asked "Was it supposed to do that?"

May you continue to R.I.P. Challenger and Columbia crews.


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