For me, January 28, 1986, is a day I'll never forget; one of those days where you'll always remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard the news. On that date, the space shuttle Challenger exploded a little more than a minute after launch, about eleven miles above the Earth's surface.
I was a reporter then for WCJB-TV, the ABC affiliate in Gainesville, Florida. For almost five years, the space shuttle program had operated flawlessly; so much so that the possibility of disaster had seemingly disappeared from our consciousness. Though our newsroom had media passes to attend the launch -- an event made noteworthy because among the crew was a "civilian," Christa McAuliffe, set to become the first school teacher in space -- no one from our newsroom attended. The perfect record of shuttle launches had perhaps made us all forget that something terrible could go wrong; that the event could become quite newsworthy for the worst of reasons.
On the morning of January 28th, I was assigned (with my photographer) to check out a gasoline leak at the city's public transit depot. Apparently, a lot of fuel had escaped a holding tank and made its way into a local storm drain. It wasn't a big story; wouldn't be given too much time on the evening newscast. I was to talk to the depot manager about what happened and my photographer was to get some video of the depot lot and storm drain.
While working the story, I remember getting a call on our news vehicle's two-way radio. Of course, this was long before cell phones. The assignment editor told me to tell the photographer to immediately stop what we were working on, and shoot the big contrail in the sky. At first, the request didn't make any sense: "What contrail? How could a contrail be so important?" I asked. That's when I learned that the space shuttle had exploded in flight.
As the crow flies, Gainesville is only about 100 miles from Cape Canaveral. The contrail was not hard to find. The sky that day was clear as could be; nothing but a wide expanse of blue, which made it even easier to notice that there was something amiss. The bright white streak of exhaust was distended, its path interrupted.
By the time my photographer and I were at our second assignment, shooting a luncheon on the top floor of a six-story bank building, everyone had heard the news. I remember standing next to the floor-to-ceiling panes of glass, staring southeastward at the contrail in the sky; joined by several others, we stared in stunned silence. The only words spoken were brief, quiet expressions of disbelief. No one could believe what had happened.
The atmosphere over central Florida on that cold, clear winter day was very still, which meant there was no wind to blow the contrail away, no wind to disperse the evidence of the tragedy. I remember looking to the southeastern sky several times that day, wishing that the trail of white smoke would just disappear and that somehow -- miraculously -- all on board Challenger would be found alive and well. Of course, that didn't happen.
One other thing I'll never forget: the pained expressions on the faces of Christa McAuliffe's parents as they began to realize that something had gone terribly wrong. I can't imagine how difficult that must have been for them, and for the family members of the other six astronauts on board. May we never forget the sacrifices of the seven members of the Challenger crew, as well as other brave NASA astronauts who have given their lives over the years in the pursuit of space exploration.