© 2022 All Rights reserved WUSF
News, Jazz, NPR
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Florida Matters

Florida Matters: Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster, 30 Years Later

It has been 30 years since the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded off the coast of Cape Canaveral. All seven crew members, including teacher Christa McAuliffe, were killed.

This week on Florida Matters (Tuesday, April 5 at 6:30 p.m. and Sunday, April 10 at 7:30 a.m.), we'll remember the disaster, and take a look at some of the lessons learned from Challenger.

We sat down with Robert Bishop, the dean of the college of engineering at the University of South Florida, and Pat Duggins, who covered the space program for public radio for 25 years and is now the news director at Alabama Public Radio.  


In this preview, Pat Duggins recalls covering the story of the Challenger explosion the day it happened.

We asked you to share your memories with us, and many of you left comments on our Facebook page, emailed us and left us voicemails. You can hear the messages we got below:

We also received several memories by email:

From Connie Malik in Tampa: I was working as a dietitian at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, where I continue to work today.  I remember being on the 5th floor of the hospital, joining staff and patients in the “day room” (visiting area) to watch the launch of the Challenger on the only tv on that floor at that time.  Everyone was stunned as we watched the explosion, sharing a collective gasp.  Several of us ran to the windows on the east side of the building and saw the smoke trails in the sky.  It was so sad, so sad.  We didn’t know what to do.

From Mischa Kirby of Sarasota: I was a second grader in New Hampshire when Challenger exploded. Our entire school had televisions wheeled into each classroom to watch the launch because all of New Hampshire was excited with Christa McCauliffe's participation in the flight. I can remember the pride and energy this event created, even as a then seven-year-old. McCauliffe was a teacher in Concord, just an hour away from our town. School schedules still had to be kept, though, and my class lined up to go to lunch at takeoff. We lined up in alphabetical order by last name, and being at the end of the line (Vieira was my maiden name), I remember myself and two other classmates seeing the white smoke around the rockets appear against the bright blue sky. A teacher's aide rushed to shut off the TV and the line continued to the cafeteria. I'm not sure how we found out exactly what had happened. Later in the day we hear that the fifth and sixth graders had watched the entire explosion. A few years later I remember driving up Interstate 93 to the mountains and as we drove through Concord, my father explaining that the building under construction on our right would be named for McCauliffe. Her loss was certainly something that impacted so many in New Hampshire.

From Dr. Terry Hynes, dean emeritus of the College of Journalism at the University of Florida: I was working/living in Southern California 30 years ago when the Challenger tragedy occurred.  That morning, I was getting ready for work and listening to the coverage on CBS radio.  I was so captivated by the coverage of the run-up to takeoff I stopped everything just to listen.

I distinctly remember the reporter (possibly Bob Schieffer, but I’m not sure of that) describing Christa McAuliffe just before takeoff and saying, among other things, “….She’s in for the ride of her life.”  I remember thinking I wished he’d used something other than a cliché to describe the amazing experience she was about to embark on.  The explosion/crash occurred seconds later.

As I remember it, CBS replayed the reporter’s description of McAuliffe within 90 seconds or less after the explosion.  The sentence “She’s in for the ride of her life” was gone from the report.  It had been edited out swiftly, with no audible sign it had ever been there.  Everything else was the same.  I marveled then—and still do given the technology of that time—how quickly the producers/editors at CBS were able to remove what would have been a most painful sentence to re-hear in the aftermath of the explosion.

Yet, all these years later that sentence comes first to my mind when I think of the Challenger tragedy.  That moment still pierces when I remember the Challenger—the sentence was presciently, poignantly true in a way no reporter ever would have intended—or, very likely, ever could bear to hear again when speaking of that day.

From Kelly Debure of St. Petersburg: When the Challenger exploded in 1986, I was three years out of college, working at NASA Langley as a flight software programmer.  As any other day, my friend and I went to the NASA cafeteria for lunch and because there was a shuttle launch, TVs had been set up everywhere.  The cafeteria was pretty full, filled with the chatter of camaraderie and anticipation.  Excitement and applause followed the countdown and liftoff.  When the shuttle exploded, the sound that swept through the cafeteria wasn't gasping, shouting, or crying - it was silent.  Complete stillness.  Everyone stared, in a trance-like state, at the TV.  NASA Langley was 800 miles from Cape Canaveral and most people were involved in projects completely unrelated to the shuttle, but we were all in shock.

From John Kienast of St. Petersburg: In January of 1986 I was a software engineer employed by the Grumman Aerospace Corporation (now known as Northrop Grumman).

Our team built a software system which controlled the actions of large banks of video tape machines. The system was intended to schedule and air TV commercials.

On the morning of the Challenger disaster I was making a presentation to Grumman executives and prospective clients. I stood in the video lab, microphone in hand, as I demonstrated the functionality of our Video Tape Control System.

After only a few minutes of my presentation had gone by, the audience started standing, pointing, yelling and crying as the live NASA feed showed the explosion in real time. I turned around and faced the TV screens as the tragedy unfolded before my eyes.

I still have deep emotion laden memories of that day. I’m not really one who says a lot of prayers, but on that day I prayed for the families of the Challenger disaster.

From Martha Rafield in Riverview: I was working in Cocoa Florida at the time in a restaurant. I knew it was going to launch that morning. So when it did launch we felt a rumble which got increasingly more intense. The restaurant shook and things began to fall off of the shelves. We went outside and I looked up and I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. I was in shock and I cried. That sight in the sky will forever be in my memories.

From Manuel Marcucci:  I was a ten year old 5th grade student at Chickasaw Elementary School in Orlando. 

Our class stepped right outside our classroom door to watch the launch with our teacher outside. You can see launches clearly from Orlando.  As the shuttle soared into the sky, we noticed what we wrongly thought was the separation of the rocket boosters. We all stood there examining the unusual sight of this launch.  I still remember the horrified look on the teacher's face.

None of us realized right away what had happened, but she did.  She urged us back inside quickly and turned on our TV.  We sat silently, and in shock. I don't remember what happened after that, or what we did- the rest of the day disappears from my memory.  Not a January 28 goes by that I don't think of that morning.

From Lisabeth Wright of Tampa: I lived in Stuart, FL which is not too far from Cape Canaveral. I had seen the horrible footage of the explosion and had the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach that I had when the Kennedys and Dr King were killed. I thought I would take a run to make myself feel better. There was a beautiful, dark blue sky except for the stunted, crooked contrail that could be seen in the sky where the Challenger had been. I dedicated my run to astronauts and ran with tears in my eyes.

WUSF 89.7 depends on donors for the funding it takes to provide you the most trusted source of news and information here in town, across our state, and around the world. Support WUSF now by giving monthly, or make a one-time donation online.