The big “Y”


challenger-explosionI was fast asleep when the Challenger exploded. It was almost high noon – but I had turned in only about three hours before.

I had spent the night in a citrus grove in Polk County, Florida. I was a general assignment reporter for a TV station in Tampa, and we were up all night providing viewers constant updates on the record freeze. The fate of the citrus crop is very big news in that part of the world.

We had huddled near smudge pots and (more modern) kerosene heaters that dotted the grove in neat rows beside the trees. But they did little to ease our chill, and I suspect, they were equally futile in protecting the valuable fruit. As I think back on it, seeing central Florida that clear, cold night from low earth orbit would have been an eerie, spectacular site.

When the call came from the assignment desk, I was in a deep sleep, so it took me some time to comprehend what I had just been told: “You are not going to believe this, but the shuttle has blown up.”

I turned on the TV and dressed quickly. My assignment: to gather local reaction to the tragedy. When I walked outside, I looked up at an implausibly blue sky – the kind of sky you only get when high pressure and low temperatures intersect.

Then I saw it. At first, I thought it was a cloud. But it was such an odd shape. Kind of like a big “Y”. It was, in fact, the awful scar that loomed off the coast of Cape Canaveral – more than 150 miles away. It seemed to be asking us all a question that to this day offers no easy answers: “Why?”naive-shuttle-concept

As you know, the truth is painful and sad. NASA managers were determined to prove their shuttle fleet was truly “operational” – even commercially viable. If their dreams had become reality, 1986 would have been the busiest year ever in the history of the Space Transportation System.

Fifteen flights were scheduled over 11 months. One was supposed to be the first mission to launch from the new shuttle facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Nine communications satellites, three classified payloads for the Pentagon and two major unmanned probes were to be carried into space in the payload bay of an orbiter that year.

NASA managers were trying to live up to years and years of their own unrealistic expectations, fanciful claims, pure science-fiction, and outright lies.

So when they discounted and discarded the firm “no-go” admonitions of engineers at the Thiokol plant in Utah where the solid rocket boosters are made, mission mangers team were, in fact, lying to themselves.

They, too, were asleep on that bitter morning when the world witnessed a nightmare.

All of this was tumbling through my head as I traveled up the road to Chattanooga to meet June Scobee Rodgers nine years ago. I wondered if, after all these years, she was bitter, or angry, or sad.

The answer is “none of the above.”

With the “Y” still hanging in the sky, she was telling then Vice President George Bush and then Senator John Glenn that her husband, Challenger Commander Dick Scobee, would not have wanted the country to take the fork in the road that would bring m070614-F-5306T-002anned space exploration to an end.

But it went beyond lip service. “I couldn’t NOT help to continue that mission – I couldn’t NOT do my part,” June told me.

Sometime later, as she and the other surviving family members met in her living room, it became clear they HAD to do SOMETHING.

“Each of us wanted to do our part to see that space exploration continued – that shuttle flights went on and their mission in particular lived,” says June.

And so the Challenger Learning Centers were born. Middle school students come to these places to role-play as astronauts and flight controllers – learning about math, science and teamwork in a way that doesn’t seem like learning. Visit one sometime – and you will marvel at  the intensity, the concentration and the utter joy these children display as they accomplish their mission.

There are now about 50 of these magical places – and millions of kids have tasted the excitement of saving the space station.

Clearly, this has helped June Scobee Rodgers cope with her loss. Happily remarried (to former Army General Don Rodgers) she has journeyed down a tough road to some happiness and peace.

But, as she confided, “there is always that morning when you wake up – on the 28th – where you think about that tremendous loss. I am so blessed, though, because I have had a beautiful life since then… and I have been given a chance to love again.

“Those are hard days and my children and I always talk to each other – and I often talk to the other families. But then we go on and we celebrate how far we have come and we often have a great celebration – a ribbon cutting (at a) new learning center that is opening – and we see that they lived in truth and they have given us so much.”

Today, I am lucky to be a member of the Board of the Challenger Center for Space Science Education. It is an organization that does much to engage and inspire kids – and keep the dreams and hopes of that lost crew alive.

The organization does great things – but it needs our help. I encourage you to support it.



25 Responses to “The big “Y””

  1. Maquis Says:

    I remember seeing that footage in our tv, even though we were still under communist regime. Today – 23 years later I hate ‘The big Y’ footage same way as before – to the point I can’t stand watching it in documantaries.

    You called it a scar – I think You grasped the meaning of that disaster well. It is a scar – but it is not limited to space program itself. For the first time space disaster touched hearts of everyone, everywhere.

    It also shown the problem with this kind of space transportation system – shuttle is not something that we would call ‘man-rated’ design (too many ‘black zones’), although the word is losing it’s old-era meaning nowdays.

    One question still remains – will we see a day of ressurection of Teacher in Space Project?

    • milesobrien Says:

      Teacher Barbara Morgan – Christa’s understudy – already flew. But NASA downplayed her “teacher” role to the point that few people even noticed.

  2. Rebecca MacKinnon Says:

    Miles!! It’s so great to see you in the blogosphere and twittersphere! Welcome welcome.

  3. Geek Habitat » Remembering Challenger Says:

    […] have been archived and are no longer online). In the interim, visit CNN’s space correspondent Miles O’Brien’s post in remembrance of the loss of Space Shuttle Challenger and her crew aboard […]

  4. Maquis Says:

    I know that Barbara Morgan flew on STS-118, but that wasn’t part of ‘Teacher in Space’ Program. To quote Scott Kelly – “I don’t have a teacher as a crewmember. I have a crewmember who used to be a teacher.”

    And Morgan never did any ‘space lesson’ as far as I know.

  5. Mark Lopa Says:

    It’s nice to read your post, Miles. I’m actually a charter sponsor and member of the Challenger Center. It’a amazing how much it’s grown.

    I was in high school band practice when our principal made the announcement over the intercom just before noon, but we were playing and didn’t hear it. I didn’t believe my friends when they told me during lunch what happened. One of them had to bring the principal over to personally tell me. The most chilling words I had ever heard as a child was him saying, “they don’t think there are any survivors.”

    We’ll never forget you, Challenger. In the very least, the Challenger Center ensures that.

  6. David Buchner Says:

    Hi, Miles.

    I can’t decide for sure, but this may be the worst day of the year for me. Certainly the worst week, anyway. I still look away, whenever that “Y” appears on a screen.
    But: good words. I often wonder whether people at NASA seem to have managed to move on better than I have. Not “get over it,” but find some way to get past the initial shock and denial. I wonder if that’s because for the outsider space “fan,” there’s no concrete way to rededicate ourselves to the work and push harder and make it stronger. I don’t know; maybe I’m way off base here. I’ve mostly managed to dodge momentous tragedies in my more immediate circle.

    So. I was already spending too much time at the computer, and now it looks like there’s ANOTHER “blog” I’ll absolutely have to follow! But I just found you this morning (via Wayne Hale’s Facebook page), and I’m really liking what I’m seeing so far.
    Among the many, many unsung important folks in the space program, I’ve come to understand that among the rarest may be the “space press” – the precious few who really “get it,” and you’re definitely one of those. I was truly shocked when I first read they were getting rid of you. “Huh!?”

    “The fact that CNN wiped out its entire – highly decorated science and technology unit – including yours truly – should tell you a lot about where things stand right now in the mainstream media.”

    Damn straight it does.

    Oh, and… you look funny! 🙂 After all those years, it’s shocking. You’re the equivalent of a Dan Rather in our house: a constant. But I loved this line: “for the first time in 26 years, I actually own my face” Right on, and if I may say: your own words, too, it seems. Your voice is a valuable one, and it’s cool to see a little more “fire” than generally gets out from a big-media reporter. Your speech to the Mars Rover team was very nifty.

    I’m on board. “Calcutta can afford it — and Cleveland can’t?” Coming soon to my pickup’s bumper.

    Welcome, and great good luck on whatever’s next!
    David Buchner
    Wolf Lake, Minnesota

  7. David Buchner Says:

    Oops, I’m blushing. I just realized that calling someone the “equivalent of a Dan Rather” could be construed as an insult to a journalist… given recent history, and depending on personal politics and whatnot. I assure you none was intended, but feel free to insert any ‘familiar media face’ or ‘household name’ you prefer. Oprah? Regis? Okay, I’d better stop now. 🙂

    • milesobrien Says:

      Dan Rather is a journalist with capital J – and a human with a capital H. And if frogs had pockets I, he’d probably still be hot as the devil’s anvil anchoring the CBS Evening News.

  8. Jason Says:

    Miles, thanks. I stop and remember every January 28. Believe it or not, the thing that ultimately moves me to tears is recalling how Dan Rather wrapped his broadcast that night. (I’ve got it written down somewhere.) It begins, “So, tonight, for our nation, a death in the family.” Damned right.

  9. mike fabio Says:

    Excellent post, Miles. I think you perfectly captured both the incredible feeling of loss and heartache along with the uplifting conclusion to the story. There is no doubt that among the mourning and lamentation we feel every January 28, there is a sense that a tremendous shift has occurred in the way we think about space. And still to this day the families of the Challenger crew work to inspire and educate a new generation of space enthusiasts.

  10. Chris Gerty Says:

    Barbara Morgan flew a plant growth chamber and used it to teach a lesson from space that was also very “hands-on” for students on the ground (and underwater). Although it wasn’t her primary role for the mission, the kits were sent to hundreds of schools across the nation and kicked off an ‘Engineering Design Challenge’ for designing lunar plant growth chambers.

    Barbara is at Boise State now, but for the years since Challenger she was an inspiration to many of us working in the “trenches”. A backup’s role is to complete the mission when the prime is unable, and although the focus and required skill-sets changed throughout the years, she “closed the loop” superbly. She wasn’t flying as a backup for same mission (after all, she was chosen as a full-fledged astronaut in 1998), but the symbolic tie to 51L was not lost on us working at NASA, nor do I think it was lost from the public’s perspective either.

    To think back to my 5th grade classroom’s TV showing the “Y in the Sky”, the tragedy and frustration of Columbia and its recovery, and the series of events that allowed me to work side-by-side with folks like Barbara, I find myself using those same words that June Scobee Rodgers did: I can’t NOT do my part to (a) take nothing for granted when dealing with the unforgiving frontier of space, and (b) remember why we’re doing all of this in the first place!

    (“…not because it is easy…”)

  11. Maquis Says:

    Chris – Touche!
    Didn’t know about that one. Thanks.

    I’m happy to hear that at least partially the spirit of that program lives on.

  12. Gordon R. Vaughan Says:

    Yeah, everyone old enough remembers that day. It was a cold, clear morning in Texas, too. I wrote about my memories of it on the 20th anniversary:

    It was really great to see Barbara Morgan finally get to fly in Christa McAuliffe’s place. I still think Teacher In Space was a great idea, and that NASA should do more flights like that.

  13. JON Says:

    I was flyng a Handley Page Jetstream (HP135) between Fresno, CA and Santa Barbara, CA that fateful day. Air Traffic Control gave us the word and we couldn’t believe it. Shock sort of set in. I was living in Santa Barbara at the time…pretty close to Vandenberg Air Force Base. We had been ”up” for the shuttle to come to california for launches in polar orbit.

    I even remember flying over Thiokol’s test facility in Utah about 7 years before the “Y”.

    I remember something similiar happening in aviation many years before Challenger. At one time the US Navy had rigid airships called dirigibles. Magnificiant vehicles of the air…indeed they were flying AIRCRAFT CARRIERS as these huge cigar shapped airships could launch and recover fighter planes while in the sky!

    The Shenandoah was ordered aloft even though the commander thought the weather was too bad. It was to attend a state fair. It crashed. Other airships also were lost…The akron comes to mind…off the coast of california.

    You see, those who decided the fate of flyers, seldom know JACK$%^& about flying.

    Too bad the decision makers on challenger didn’t even know the history of flying aircraft carriers.


  14. JON Says:

    correction to above: USS Macon was lost off California coast near point sur. USS Akron was lost off the east coast with Admiral Moffet aboard…namesake of Moffet field and its giant dirigible hangars in sunnyvale, ca.

  15. Rich Mathews Says:

    Nothing could have prepared me for this day on January 28, 1986. At 11:35 a.m. EST I was marking my script for the 12:00 Noon show at CNN Headline News when at 11:39 am I heard some gasps coming from A-Control. I looked up at the TV monitor to see that ball of flame and the two SRBs wandering off on their own. I kept looking for the Challenger to come out of that cloud intact and thought to myself maybe there’s an escape or ejection system. As I stood up with my 40 pages of script to head for A-Control for the 12:00 pm show the Producer told me to “trash my script”, we ran the show open and went right to NASA Select (NASA’s Satellite Feed). The Anchors had to ad-lib till producers and writers could get more info to them. I remember seeing a parachute coming down over the water and yelling out “there’s a chute” only to find out later it was a rescue diver. I must say he had courage as we watched all that debris splashing into the water around the diver.

    We all know the sad outcome 23 years ago today and so I once again salute and pay tribute to the crewmembers of Challenger, STS-51-L:

    Commander Dick Scobee
    Pilot Mike Smith
    Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis
    Teacher in Space Sharon Christa McAuliffe
    Mission specialist Ron McNair
    Mission specialist Ellison S. Onizuka
    Mission specialist Judy Resnik

  16. Ann Bevans-Selig Says:

    Miles, thanks for reminding us of this somber anniversary.

    I was in the fifth grade when we lost Challenger. My teacher, Miss O’Hara, was a candidate for the mission. My class was bent over long division when Miss Robb came into the room. I’ll never forget the look on her face. She asked Miss O’Hara to step into the hall. When she came back, she was crying. I don’t know how she held it together.

    How do you tell a school full of elementary school kids that the space shuttle has exploded, when every one of them is bursting with pride that one of our own “almost got to go”? I don’t remember what the ultimate decision was, but I do remember wandering the hallways, craning my neck to see into the darkened library, where a clutch of teachers was gathered around a lone television set, faces illuminated like children watching the late late movie.

    It’s heartening to know that, as painful as it was, the Challenger disaster was not the final chapter in American space exploration.

  17. Phil Gornail Says:

    I’m glad I stopped by your Facebook page today and caught this link. That day still remains as one of the most surreal moments of my life. I came down the stairs to go to the kitchen when my mother said, “OMG!!! The Shuttle Crashed!”

    I said, “Mom, please…it’s probably just a hoax and if you want to really know then turn on the radio and flip channels to make sure.” This of course coming from a know-it-all teenager. I nearly lost all senses as one station after another just kept repeating the same teleprompter.

    For me it was sad on so many levels (I guess like for most), but I wanted to be one of those pioneers on the 1st space station on the moon and secretly dreamed of being able to do so (so what if my grades were no longer the 4.0’s I used to have). A kid can dream…right? ;-D

    Your blog today brought me a lot of relief however, knowing that the families have really moved on and I had no idea about the Challenger Centers. I’m looking into including them on my short list of donations this year.

    Continued success to you and your journalistic endeavors.

  18. Pete G. Says:

    Hi Miles,

    It’s me, Pete, formerly of the Air and Space Museum. Nice post, nice blog. Sorry about the current state of the news business, if business is still the right term. Send me a message offline so we can catch up. Best, PG

  19. Miz Brennan Says:

    I miss you on the tee vee Miles O’Brien. Your words about the Challenger were beautifully said.

  20. Diana Davidson Says:

    Miles – it’s great to know you are writing online. I’ve been watching you (not in a bad way, lol) for a long time and have enjoyed all your reports. Wonderful post.

  21. Alyssia Scobee Says:

    Francis Richard Dick Scobee was my cousin. I never met him, because I was born in 1992, but I have heard a lot about him from my grandparents.

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