January 28, 1986

10/08/2018 Posted by admin

by Eric Sorensen

I remember January 28, 1986, andI was definitely not paying attention to the launch of the space shuttle Challenger.

It was the 25th shuttle launch. The previous24 had gone off flawlessly,so one more was viewed asmore or less a routine trip back to space.

Remember, this was just a few years after a series of NASA trips to the moon. The shuttle was new and larger than the earlier Gemini and Apollo manned capsules, and it could glide back to Earth and be steered right onto a landing strip. That was pretty cool. But it sure wasn’t as thrilling as themoon shots by any stretch of the imagination. They were nail-biters to the very end when astronauts were plucked out of the ocean after their tiny capsules parachuted back to Earth.

So, when shuttle launch #25 counted down, I think CNN was the only network covering it LIVE. The big U.S. networks weren’t inclined to interrupt their soap operas for a simple trip into Earth orbit. (They don’t cover them now either – but there are many more 24-hour news networks to take up the slack.)

Story continues below


This launch received more attention than some – it was the first time a civilian was aboard the shuttle, Christa McAuliffe, a teacher. Many classrooms across the United States and Canada were set up to watch. Clearly it seemed safe enough to NASA for a civilian to hitch a ride.

I was told that in my newsroom – CFTO-TV in Toronto –the launch didn’t grab much attention.

And then it happened. The arcing trajectory of the Shuttle flew apart…the booster rockets firing off in different directions. Cameras rolled on the faces of McAuliffe’s parents, at first confused, then stricken.

On TV, the instructions from NASA to the Challenger suddenly went silent.

By now all the networks had interrupted regular programming.

Then came this from the NASA voice over: “Flight controllers looking very carefully at the situation. Obviously, a major malfunction.”

The images of the explosion were replayed and replayed.

The Space Shuttle Challenger explodes seconds after takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in this January 28, 1986 file photo from NASA.

I wasin London, Ontario that day covering the Guy Paul Morin murder trial – his first trial, the one that found him guilty. It would be years before his name was cleared in the killing of Christine Jessup. But on that morning, he was the accused, and he was due to testify for the first time. We knew this was to be the big story of the day in Ontario.

As I remember it, reporter Ted Fairhurst stepped out of the courtroom around noon to file a story to CBC Radio. A short while later, he came back to our table, the court proceedings still underway. He leaned over andwhispered to us,”We won’t be the lead story today. The space shuttle just blew up.” The courtroom probably heard our collective gasp.

We completed our stories, but like everyone else, I was glued to the television that night watching coverage of the Challenger disaster.

The tragedy drove home the point that modern space flight was anything but routine. We sometimes take human space travel for granted, until a catastrophe reminds us what a marvel it really is.

Today, 25 years later, I asked several people if they remembered where they were when they heard about the Challenger disaster. Each one remembered in vivid detail. As do I.

Eric is Global National’s Washington bureau chief. Follow him on Twitter: @ericsorensendc.

Comments are closed.