Challenger: Still There…
A little over three decades ago, January 28, 1986 began one of the worst times of my life.
I watched as seven friends and the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded into a ball of fire moments after take-off. Soon, all the Astronauts were assigned to assist in the search, recovery, and rebuilding of the United States space program. I was sent to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to help with the identification of the fragments of the accident.
In a huge hangar, all of Challenger’s recovered bits and pieces were being collected and assembled into bizarre likeness of our Shuttle – all broken apart. Engineers, accident investigators, NASA supervisors, and Astronauts were reconstructing what had happened.
A small leak of hot gas from one of the two boosters had caused it to break away from the vehicle and hit the large orange fuel tank, which exploded. The Shuttle herself had blown apart, the crew cabin with seven souls aboard had broken free and plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
There came a time when the “autopsy” was completed, the knowledge to go forward had been gained, and it was time to decide what to do with the remains on the hangar floor. All the pieces were too precious to risk souvenir takers, and none wanted to remember Challenger looking so broken.
It was decided that the entire vehicle would be buried in an old, unused missile silo nearby. The orders were to transport it to the silo (under tight security) and when it was all in, cover it with concrete—preventing anyone from getting to it. We saw pictures of the “funeral” and felt relief that it was finally interred.
These days—so many years later—I enjoy going to the Kennedy Space Center to see new exhibits and remember our days with the fine people of the space program. On a recent visit, I went to see a new exhibit honoring the Challenger and Columbia astronauts. Each crewmember had a vignette of his or her personal life: military helmets, family pictures, a Boy Scout uniform, aviation checklists. It was poignant to recall the Challenger crewmembers who were close personal friends and to treasure the memories of our times together. And to thank God for Hoot’s and my safe passage through those days.
At the end of the display of the memory boxes, the exhibit took a turn, and I was curious to see what lay beyond. Rounding a corner, I gasped. There, in a lighted display case mounted on the wall was a chunk of material that I recognized immediately as a small American flag from the side of Challenger. All the memories of things lost came flooding back as tears rolled down my cheeks.
As it turned out, the pieces of Challenger had been carefully cataloged as they went into the missile silo, which was then flooded and topped with concrete. Someone knew at which level this chunk was deposited and was able to retrieve it. I was delighted it had been saved and to know that somehow Challenger is still there – in our minds, in our hearts, and for us to visit.
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