When the Challenger exploded, there we were

Challenger’s trail of vapor from Diane`s second-floor balcony on Merritt Island

Hmmm, that is weird and kind of pretty I thought, as I watched the Challenger’s trail of vapor from my second-floor balcony on Merritt Island, Fla., 10 miles from Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Center. It was Jan, 28, 1986, a crisp, clear Tuesday, a little after 11:30 a.m.. The cloud formation was so interesting that I took a photo, shown here. I didn’t assume anything had gone wrong. Unthinkable.

Then my brain caught up. How can this be? Odd became ominous. I switched on the TV. And that’s when I heard the news. The Challenger had exploded. I called my friend and colleague Connie Ogle. “Connie, turn on your television. Now!” We were both due at work in a few hours to edit and lay out the news section of Florida Today, the local paper.

The crew of the Challenger's final flight (photo Wikipedia)

I’d lived on “the Space Coast” of Florida for two years and never missed a shuttle launch. I’d scan the sky while my windows rattled. Always I was overcome by the enormity of the rocket, the science, the human achievements. Most of my paper’s readers were connected — through work, family, or allegiance — to the space program. In 1985, my pal Scott Kline and I got press credentials to view a launch from the VIP stand. Standing in the bleachers with the shuttle just across a small pond I will forever recall that rush of watching the space shuttle fire up and shoot into the sky while the ground shook below us. Awesome.

Connie and I went to the newsroom early that day, along with the entire editorial staff. We scrambled to put out a special edition. Of course this was the shuttle launch that the entire country —  no, the world —  was invested in, the first one carrying a civilian, New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe. All eyes were on the flight, and, by default, on our community. The press already was everywhere, and more reporters flooded in after the explosion. And there we were, shellshocked, working on the hometown paper, trying to soothe our readers who had grown up with NASA in their back yards.

Challenger's rollout to the Vehicle Assembly Building on Cape Canaveral in 1983 (photo Wikipedia)

The craziest part was the journalistic rush coupled with personal depression. I guess everyone whose job thrives on emergencies feels this way. We were news people at the center of the world’s news. But the news was horrific and dragged us down.

That day and every day for months we wrote and edited pages and pages of shuttle coverage. And of course it was all the residents discussed. I remember feeling relieved that I’d recently moved away from Cape Canaveral, the closet beach community to the space center.  For weeks after the explosion, volunteers and NASA workers combed that beach for shuttle parts. For body parts. I was glad to not witness that. I’d moved off the beach to temporary digs in Merritt Island because I was headed to Europe in the spring. In April 1986, I left behind Cocoa, Cape Canaveral, the Space Coast and Florida Today, where still pages and pages were devoted to that day — the weather, the O rings, the sorrow.

January 28, 1986. Twenty-five years ago. A defining moment for all of us there, from the Space Coast to the other side of the planet. 

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2 Responses to “When the Challenger exploded, there we were”

  1. Vicki Ritterband Says:

    I didn’t realize you had this connection to the Challenger disaster Di. You are a woman of many chapters!

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