Space & Innovation

'Challenger: An American Tragedy:' Review

The space shuttle Challenger tragedy is recounted from the perspective of the men and women inside NASA. Continue reading →

Jan. 28 stands out to most space-minded people as the day NASA experienced its first in-flight disaster. In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched through frozen skies and exploded just one minute and 13 seconds after lift off.

The story is retold often, serving as a reminder of the inherent dangers of spaceflight and serving as a case study in engineering programs around the world. But there's another side to the story that we hear far less often, and that's the perspective of the men and women within NASA.

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Today, 28 years after the challenger disaster, Hugh Harris, who was working as the chief of public information at Kennedy that day, shares his own account in a new e-book, "Challenger: An American Tragedy - The Inside Story From Launch Control."

Harris began his NASA career in 1963 as an information specialist with the Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland. In 1968, he was promoted to chief of the Public Information Office before transferring to the Kennedy Spaceflight Centre in 1975 where he became director of public affairs.

At Kennedy, Harris was responsible for planning and administering programs designed to inform the public on the agency's activities, results and the overall significance of the country's aerospace programs. Among his duties was providing launch-day commentary for shuttle missions, a role that earned him the nickname of "the voice of NASA."

When Harris drove out to Kennedy on the morning of Jan. 28, he was a seasoned launch veteran and could tell there was something different that day. His book paints the scene on the causeway that morning. It was quiet. Where people usually parked their cars and made fast friends with other launch viewers on the side of the road, there were only a few cars pulled over with their occupants huddled inside for warmth against the unseasonably cold winter morning.

From here, Harris recounts conversations he had with coworkers at Kennedy as the countdown progressed. There were discussions about the ice building up on the gantry, while the "ice team" made multiple trips to the launch pad to survey the situation.

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Harris shares dialogue from inside the crew cabin during the countdown, from astronauts trying to keep their spirits up during delays, through the launch, to the final words from the crew before all data was lost from the spacecraft.

With the shuttle and its boosters raining down in pieces, Harris explains what happened inside the firing room. At one point, the press officers quickly began copying launch media - TV footage and images - knowing the originals would soon be impounded by security for use in the official investigation.

Harris shares his thoughts on NASA's decision not to resume commentary immediately after the explosion and recounts the media frenzy that followed, of journalists watching recovery ships with night vision cameras in an attempt to see what was being dredged from the crash site while others used an amateur radio receiver to listen in on the chatter between these ships.

More than just a personal account of the disaster, Harris punctuates his book with conversations and interactions between himself and some of NASA key players, bringing the story to life. Throughout, Harris' love for NASA and the shuttle program is obvious. He retired from the agency in 1998.

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available for download at Open Road Media

Photo: The solid fuel rocket booster of the space shuttle Challenger begins to explode over Kennedy Space Center, 72 seconds into its flight. Credit: AFP/Getty Images

The Program Begins

What do you do after you've been to the moon? NASA's grand plan was to build a space station and a fleet of reusable spaceships that could shuttle people and cargo back and forth like an airliner. Unable to afford both programs, NASA opted for the more technically challenging shuttle, a program formally launched by President Nixon on Jan. 5, 1972. The first orbiter built was Enterprise, pictured here, a prototype that never flew in space, but was used for critical atmospheric flight tests and practice landings.

A New Spaceship

The world's first reusable spaceship, Columbia, arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in March 1979. NASA assigned two astronauts for the first flight, Apollo veteran John Young and rookie Bob Crippen. At the time, NASA put the odds of them not surviving at about 1-in-100,000, but the risk actually was about 1-in-nine. Powered by three hydrogen-burning engines and a pair of solid-rocket boosters, the shuttle lifted off on April 12, 1981, the 20th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin's spaceflight. NASA stopped painting the shuttles' fuel tanks white after the second flight, saving money and about 600 pounds of weight. Between July 1982 and April 1985, three more space shuttles -- Challenger, Discovery and Atlantis -- arrived at the Florida spaceport.

Breaking Boundaries

NASA steadily increased the size of its shuttle crews, as the missions grew in duration and complexity. The original crews of two astronauts were doubled to four, and by the time the seventh mission was launched on June 18, 1983, there were five people aboard, including, for the first time, an American woman. Less than three months after Sally Ride’s historic flight, NASA broke cultural boundaries again, with the launch of the first African American to fly in space, Guion Bluford.

Payload Specialists

NASA realized its original projections to fly the shuttles once or twice a month were unrealistic, as the between-flight servicing turned out to be complicated, time-consuming and labor-intensive. It did, however, consider the ships safe enough for non-professionals to fly. The guest list included politicians, a Saudi prince and a teacher. These so-called "payload specialists" underwent minimal training, including parabolic flights on a NASA airplane which offers passengers a taste of weightlessness. Bill Nelson, photographed here (center), now a Florida senator, was in the House of Representatives when he flew in January 1986, less than a month before New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe (holding hands with Nelson in this photo) launched aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger. NASA ended its guest flyer programs after the fatal accident.

Challenger's O-rings

NASA had known the shuttle booster rockets had a nasty habit of burning their rubber seals, known as O-rings, during the fiery climb to orbit, but managers failed to grasp the big picture until Jan. 28, 1986. On that cold winter morning, one of the booster's O-rings completely failed, leading to the horrid and widely televised destruction of Challenger 72 seconds after liftoff. The accident killed five NASA astronauts, a Hughes Aircraft engineer and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. NASA shut down the shuttle program for over two years while it redesigned the booster rockets, added safety features, such as a telescoping escape pole, and revamped its management practices. Wreckage and debris from the mid-air explosion were retrieved from the ocean and sealed inside an abandoned missile silo at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Interplanetary Missions

A sobered and more safety-conscious NASA resumed flying the shuttle in Sept. 1988, steadily working through a backlog of science and military spacecraft needing rides into orbit. Magellan, a radar-mapper bound for Venus, was the first interplanetary probe launched on the shuttle. The capstone mission was the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990, which also marked the first time since before the Challenger accident that NASA resumed dual launch pad operations. As Discovery blasted off with Hubble, sistership Columbia was being prepared the Astro-1 astronomy mission.

Hands-On Satellite Repair

Endeavour, the replacement ship for Challenger, debuted on May 7, 1992, on what was to be a straightforward mission to capture a stranded communications satellite and outfit it with a new upper-stage rocket motor so that it could reach its proper orbit. When the special tool devised to snag the spacecraft didn't work, the astronauts took matter into their own hands, literally. They devised plans for an unprecedented (and unpracticed) three-man spacewalk and grabbed the satellite with their gloved fingers. It was a bellwether moment for NASA and good practice for the complicated repair mission to follow to fix the Hubble telescope, which, much to NASA's chagrin, had been launched with a flawed primary mirror that blurred its view of the universe.

Space Sex?

With the shuttle program in full swing and well over 100 astronauts in the corps, it was probably only a matter of time for the inevitable to happen -- a married pair on the same crew. NASA had a policy against couples flying together, but Mark Lee and Jan Davis weren't married when they were assigned to the 50th shuttle mission, a Japanese-sponsored science research flight called Spacelab-J whose crew also included the first Japanese astronaut, Mamoru Mohri, and the first African-American woman, Mae Jemison. Lee and Davis, who worked on opposite shifts during the eight-day flight, said they'd be too busy to have sex in space and it’d be awfully tacky to boot, considering the shuttle's close quarters and the five other people aboard.

World Politics

The fall of the Soviet Union transformed world politics and opened a new chapter in space. The former Cold War foes, once keen competitors in a race to the moon, began an astronaut-cosmonaut exchange program that not only saved Russia's cash-strapped Mir space station, but also breathed new life into the flagging U.S. space shuttle program. Between March 1995 and June 1998, seven U.S. astronauts lived on Mir, and cosmonauts were added to shuttle crews. A fire, and later a crash, on Mir threatened the budding partnership, but ultimately Mir proved an apt training ground for the International Space Station program. During the shuttle's first docking at Mir, two cosmonauts took a ride in the station's Soyuz capsule to take pictures.

Fuel Tank Insulation

NASA was about halfway through building the International Space Station when it launched shuttle Columbia on Jan. 16, 2003, on a free-flying research mission, the only other flight besides a final servicing call to the Hubble Space Telescope that wasn't going to the orbital outpost. The crew included Israel's first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, and security for launch, already heightened in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, grew even tighter. But terrorists weren't the reason why Ramon and his six NASA crewmates never made it home. A piece of foam insulation about the size of a briefcase fell off Columbia's fuel tank during liftoff and smashed into the ship's wing, damaging the heat shield. NASA didn't realize until after Columbia's demise how delicate the shuttle's wing panels were or how blind the agency had been to the dangers of the seemingly innocuous foam debris. Columbia broke apart as it headed toward Florida for landing on Feb. 1, 2003. It was the beginning of the end for the shuttle program.

The Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer

On May 16, 2011, NASA launched space shuttle Endeavour and a crew of six to install the last major science experiment, $2 billion particle detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, onto the International Space Station. The 134th shuttle mission was the next-to-last for the 30-year-old program. All the shuttles have been promised to museums.


They call themselves "The Final Four" -- the last of the 355 people who will have flown on the space shuttles. The 135th flight, slated to launch July 8, was added just last year to buy time for the commercial companies NASA has hired to take over cargo runs to the International Space Station. Atlantis will carry a year's worth of food, clothing, science gear and supplies to the station in case the new freighters encounter delays. Until private firms can develop space taxis, the United States will now depend on Russia to fly its astronauts to the station, as the agency devotes its limited budget toward building spacecraft that can travel beyond the station's orbit. "There is not an American who doesn't look upon an ascending shuttle with a certain sense of American pride," says Atlantis commander Chris Ferguson. "It's just been great and I think it will be fantastic to the very end."