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US Sen. Bill Nelson Recalls Challenger Disaster 30 Years On

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL, became the first congressman in space when he served as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Columbia STS-61-C mission on January 12, 1986.

Many Americans watched in shock as the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated over the Florida sky 30 years ago.

U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, D-FL, was one of the viewers who had tuned in to the national broadcast. Then a U.S. representative, Nelson arrived back to earth only 10 days earlier after a six-day mission in space. 

It would be the final successful mission to space before the Challenger disaster.

Nelson told WUSF that as it became abundantly clear something was going wrong with the Challenger launch, he dropped to his knees in his congressional office and wondered “Why was I spared?”

The Challenger explosion forever changed the way Americans viewed space travel, Nelson said. Because the disaster was replayed over and over again, he said many Americans stopped viewing space travel as something routine or mundane.

“It was like getting in your car and going for a Sunday drive,” Nelson said. “They suddenly were shocked into the reality when they could see it… the symbol of our technological prowess back in 1986 explode and disintegrate.”

Seven astronauts lost their lives in the explosion, including Christa McAuliffe, who would have been the first teacher in space.

Nelson said he had originally been penciled in for the Challenger mission, but was later placed on the Space Shuttle Columbia STS-61-C mission. The Columbia shuttle would also explode during mission 17 years later, in 2003.

Because his mission in January of 1986 had been scrubbed four times due to unfavorable weather conditions, Nelson said he shared crew quarters with the Challenger crew.

Astronauts under quarantine after a mission and astronauts at the launch pad for practice countdowns both live in the crew quarters at Cape Canaveral.

“Therefore, these were all personal friends,” Nelson said.

The shuttle program went on a 32-month hiatus following the Challenger disaster. The disintegration about a minute into launch was later believed to have resulted from cold temperatures at the launch site, according to an investigation by federal authorities.

Because of his close connection to the Challenger disaster, Nelson said he now has a deep commitment to the future success of NASA missions and space exploration.

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Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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