The shuttle launch that morning 25 years ago was of keen interest to Kathleen Richardson.
For one thing, it was her business.
From 1983 to 1987, the Bradenton retiree was a technical editor for Morton-Thiokol, the aerospace company that manufactured the booster rockets for NASA’s reusable space shuttles.
For another, her 9-year-old daughter, Anne, and her classmates had been writing essays, making posters about this particular launch, because it would carry a teacher, Christa McAuliffe.
Challenger was a big deal, all right.
“Everybody was involved, even just emotionally because of our contracts,” said Richardson, who worked in the company’s laboratories in Elkton, Md. “We had a small TV in our office and when we’d hear the countdown we would all look, expecting it to be perfect ...”
Yet there was uncertainty before the Jan. 28 launch and it provoked considerable intra-company discussion.
“We all knew the shot had been scrubbed a couple of times and it got kind of sticky,” Richardson said. “We communicated with engineers in casual conversation before the shot -- should they fly in cold weather? The engineers knew the O-rings hadn’t been tested in weather that cold.
We were very aware of that.”
The night before the Tuesday morning launch, Morton-Thiokol engineers in Utah expressed their safety concerns with NASA officials.
They feared the sub-freezing temperatures at Cape Canaveral would affect the O-rings -- large rubber gaskets that seal each joint in the three-section rocket boosters and prevent the escape of super-heated gases.
Ultimately, the company’s management overruled the engineers and gave NASA the green light.
Seventy-three seconds into the launch, the O-rings failed on the right booster, triggering a catastrophic explosion that killed the teacher and six other astronauts and shook a nation.
“We were aghast,” Richardson said. “We knew immediately something was wrong. We were stunned. We all just stood there. We were just basically in shock. We had to go back to work, but we didn’t do anything the rest of the day.”
It hit home for her family, too. Richardson’s child was just one of many children watching in schools from across America.
“My daughter was upset and we talked about it, how terrible it was,” she said. “It was a horrible mistake. We felt terrible for those families, regardless of whether we worked for the company.”
Richardson left the next year to get into more creative writing and years later visited the Astronaut Memorial at Cape Canaveral.
“You see the photos of them smiling, their enthusiasm, it’s so sad when you think about it,” she said. “It was such a waste of life and talent, and it was so avoidable.”
Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055.