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Memories, lessons vivid from that fateful day

Cold morning, crystal blue sky.

That was the scene 25 years ago today when the space shuttle Challenger finally lifted off after several delays for technical problems.

The first teacher for a space mission was on board, and little children around the nation were watching the launch on classroom TVs. But even with that, media interest had seemingly waned. The high-tech shuttle seemed so routine and safe that even civilians like Christa McAuliffe could fly -- or so we thought.

CNN was the only TV network carrying this 25th shuttle launch live.

As the shuttle thundered aloft, Charles Milton Johnson, my uncle who had worked at space-related jobs at Cape Canaveral since 1956 -- even before there was a NASA -- stepped outside to watch the launch with his boss.

“He asked, ‘What would it take for you to go on a mission?’ ” Johnson told me recently.

His instant response: “Just ask.”

Moments later, 73 seconds after liftoff, the Challenger exploded and the two watched incredulously as debris fell into the Atlantic Ocean.

“We were hoping the orbiter would survive,” recalled Johnson.

All of us were. Many of us assumed systems were built into the shuttle to allow the orbiter to glide or parachute back to earth in the event of an accident. Only later did we learn that there was no escape system.

And that some of the astronauts apparently survived the initial disintegration of the shuttle.

On Jan. 28, 1986, I was editor of the News & Observer in New Smyrna Beach, located less than an hour’s drive north of Kennedy Space Center.

I was seated at my desk behind a computer terminal laying out the afternoon newspaper, nearing deadline, when features editor Annie Matlow ran into the office and said something had happened to the shuttle.

I went outside and looked up to see an irregular pattern of smoke spreading in the sky from the catastrophe. Within minutes, photographer Peter Bauer showed up with film that captured images of the explosion. Bauer had gone to Kennedy Space Center for each of the previous shuttle missions, but had decided to shoot this mission from our own beach.

We immediately set to work tearing up that front page to remake it for the tragic report of the Challenger disaster.

My recollection is that almost immediately, there was suspicion that the blast was cold-related, and might have had something to do with O-ring shrinkage. But it would be months before a final determination, and years before the shuttle would fly again.

According to one source, 535 reporters were accredited to cover the launch, but 1,467 sought credentials after the disaster.

The media, and probably most of the American public, had underestimated how dangerous space travel was in 1986, and that a journey aboard the shuttle, reputedly the most complex machine ever built by humankind, could never be routine.

More than 12 years later, John Glenn, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, returned to space aboard the Discovery shuttle.

The 77-year-old Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962, attracted a huge crowd of media.

Glenn, a living legend, rightly took the media to task during a press conference at the launch site for failing to routinely report the important work of space exploration, rather than focusing on the more sensational space stories.

Glenn wanted the reporting on his mission to focus on the research on space flight and aging, rather than on his return to space as an American hero -- my words, not his.

Even though his mission was safely and successfully completed, little did we realize that all of the painstaking corrective actions and soul-searching after the Challenger disaster had failed to correct all the problems.

On Feb. 1, 2003, the shuttle Columbia was destroyed on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

It was later determined that a piece of foam insulation broke off the shuttle’s external fuel tank and damaged the leading edge of a wing. Extreme temperatures were able to enter the shuttle and destroy it.

By then, I was now working for the Bradenton Herald, but was visiting New Smyrna Beach for the weekend.

Appalled, I watched the disaster on TV. Shortly afterward, Executive Editor Joan Krauter asked me to stay on the East Coast for a week to cover the disaster’s aftermath.

What I saw and reported was deep shock and mourning, and how almost immediately, falling foam was suspected in the loss of the Columbia.

My first story was a report from the Astronaut Memorial, which contained the names of the American space explorers who had lost their lives, including the crew of the Challenger:

“By the thousands they came, reverent pilgrims entwining flowers and messages into the fence at the Astronaut Memorial, and saying prayers for the souls of the crew of space shuttle Columbia.

“One day after the shuttle disintegrated over Texas, people stood in front of the black mirrored surface of the memorial, lost in their own thoughts. Many brought video cameras to capture the shared outpouring of grief and respect. Parents whispered to children, some too young to really understand the enormity of a calamity that shocked the world. Among those present Sunday was Gerald Stevens, 20, an employee of Pierce Manufacturing in Bradenton.

“ ‘It is a great loss. They were serving their country and trying to make new discoveries for us,’ Stevens said. ‘I feel for their families. But we can’t let this accident stop us. We have to move on.’ ”

Looking back on the Challenger and Columbia losses, I share the universal feeling of loss and sorrow for the crew members and their families. And the certain knowledge that those disasters could have been prevented.

But I also know those dangerous missions expand human knowledge and understanding, and make the human spirit soar. Humans have always wanted to know what’s beyond the horizon, the next planet, the nearest twinkling star. It’s our destiny.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.