Remembering the Challenger Tragedy and a Letter of Hope

I witnessed the Challenger tragedy from the newsroom of the Voice of America, but it's what happened after that stuck with me most.

By Al Perrotta Published on January 28, 2016

January 28, 1986. Thirty years ago today.

It was a typical Tuesday in the Washington newsroom of the Voice of America. I was working my first job out of college. As the government’s international broadcast station, VOA was required by law to present the news “fair, accurate and unbiased.” We represented the United States. It was a task taken very seriously by my colleagues. But there was also a certain mundane aspect to the work as well: The latest agriculture report for Africa, updates on that flood in Bangladesh, a new speech by the President … another launch of the space shuttle.

The Countdown

By the time January ’86 rolled around, the spectacular sight of a shuttle launch had become routine. The Challenger alone had already made nine flights. The only network left covering the morning’s liftoff was a newfangled 24/7 news channel called CNN. This launch did have one wrinkle: For the first time, a civilian would be on board, a teacher named Christa McAuliffe. As a result, schoolchildren were gathering to watch in classrooms across the country.

Many, not all, of the newsroom TV sets were tuned to CNN. The coverage was a blur in the background as I went about my business. The shuttle launched as I got up from my desk, the magnificent fiery exhaust catching my breath for a second. Just a second. I walked toward the center of the newsroom on my way to what was called “The Bubble” — the place where the news reports came in. I heard managing editor Don Henry pass by and say, “I’m going to get a bite.” My stomach likely growled.

A large-screen TV near the assignment desk caught my eye: The brilliant white smoke plume from the streaking shuttle was rising against the piercing blue sky. Familiar words came from Kennedy Space Center mission control: “Full throttle up.” Suddenly the smoke plume split in two with flashes of yellow and orange, then twisted like a witch’s gnarled fingers back again.

“Odd,” I thought, “Did they do something different with the boosters?”

Then I noticed: There was no more white smoke heading skyward behind the shuttle. Only blank sky. Something’s wrong. Very wrong.

Then came a declaration from mission control, all the more awful in its understatement: “We have a major malfunction.”

The Space Shuttle Challenger, with seven souls aboard, had just blown up.

The Scramble

“Albert, see if you can catch Don Henry!” The barked order from my boss snapped me to attention. I flew out of the newsroom, down the elevator and out onto C Street. I could see no sign of Mr. Henry. It did not hit me that I was looking toward NASA’s administrative headquarters, which at that moment was experiencing what could only have been hell.

By the time I got back upstairs, our newsroom that only moments ago had featured the drab clatter of keyboards now burst wide with activity and adrenaline. “Did you grab Greg Flakus?!” Our Miami correspondent had been set to leave the launch once Challenger lifted off. “Where’s Alan Silverman?” VOA’s Morning Show anchor was a space geek who knew the shuttle as well as any engineer. “Get him on the air with the news anchors!” “Say, isn’t that guy from downstairs out at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California today?” It was exactly the scene you’d imagine from watching movies and TV.

The other transcriber and I had a specific responsibility. Flakus would not have any time to type out any of his reports. He’d be calling in every few minutes as information became available. We had to grab cassettes of those reports and transcribe them as quickly as possible so VOA’s 40-plus foreign language services could share the breaking — heartbreaking — news coming out of Cape Canaveral.

The next hours are a blur. Typing. Running to the Bubble. Typing. Running to the Bubble. High and low, there were televisions in every direction, each network now covering the disaster live. And all were replaying the explosion over and over. Plume. Boom! Plume. Boom! Every turn of the head, every place in the newsroom. Plume. Boom!

For hours, I could not escape the fireball. I was numb.

At no point did I cry.

AP Photo/Bruce Weaver, File

AP Photo/Bruce Weaver

The Morning After

The next morning VOA naturally remained consumed with the Challenger tragedy. We weren’t going to hide the fact that something went wrong in our space program. We weren’t the Soviet Union. The world would see our scars.

I was given a task: Correspondent Greg Flakus had done such an amazing job on the fly, the bosses wanted his efforts preserved. “Could you find the tape of yesterday’s coverage and grab the Flakus reports?” I slapped the first tape onto the reel-to-reel machine, put on the headphones and hit play. As the countdown clock ticked down toward zero, the banter between our news anchors was light and enthusiastic. Worries had passed that the launch would again be delayed by the cold. It was go time. My emotions began to rise. I knew what those anchors did not. Challenger lifted off. I could hear the roar of the rockets and excitement of the hosts. Seconds passed. Tears welled in my eyes — as they are again as I type. At 73 seconds in, the dreaded words: “Full throttle up.”

A pause, then bewilderment in the voice of our male anchor. He knows something has happened. He’s searching for words. He picks words carefully. By the time NASA announced a “major malfunction” he may well have even known exactly what had happened. However, despite every human instinct to shout, “Oh, my God, the shuttle’s exploded!” he absolutely would not say it. He couldn’t do that to our audience. He would not tell our 300 million listeners around the globe that America’s Challenger was gone. No, not until it had been confirmed.

My sorrow, pent up for nearly 24 hours, finally burst out. My tape deck would be wet with tears the remainder of the day.

NASA Headquarters Washington DC - 900

The path to one of my favorite lunch spots took me past NASA’s Washington headquarters. The National Air and Space Museum sits right across the street. A pall of gloom hung over those city blocks for weeks. I watched white-shirted NASA bureaucrats lumber into their building as if carrying a booster rocket on their back. Air and Space visitors moved with somber slowness as if they were touring Arlington Cemetery. I recall pictures of the seven astronauts framed in black.

In that neighborhood, at least, there was an air of failure and despair.

The Letters

We’d always gotten letters at VOA: people asking questions about America, fan letters for assorted VOA personalities, requests for Michael Jackson’s autograph. (We got lots of those. It was 1986, after all.) But in the wake of Challenger, letters poured in from every corner and country. Whether from the Netherlands or Namibia, Taiwan or Turkey, people expressed their condolences to America on its loss. Their English was often broken, but their affection for America, and their desire to lift our spirits in whatever small way was unmistakable.

One particular letter came from India, and thirty years later I wish to God I had had a smartphone to take a picture of it so that I could send it to every politician, pundit or professor who works to tear this country down.

The author went beyond offering condolences. He explained what it meant as an Indian to watch America soar into space, walk on the moon, explore far beyond earth. America offered inspiration. America ignited aspirations. But even more, he said, America took us along.

In that one note lies the meaning of America. Every one in every land who dreamed of traveling to space, but couldn’t go themselves, we carried with us. Millions stuck behind the Iron Curtain or caught in the Ayatollah’s fist, but yearning for freedom and liberty, we carried with us. Those hoping to raise their fortunes and futures through their own labors, we carried with us.

America reaches for the sky, and brings the world with her.

The Speech

I left out one memory from that terrible winter day: President Ronald Reagan’s message that night from the Oval Office. To those who were not yet born, all I can say is, it was like getting a big hug from Grandpa assuring you “It’s going to be all right.”

 

Sure enough, as Reagan assured us that night and in his amazing eulogy two days later at the Challenger memorial service, America did fly again.

And today, to a nation unsettled and unsure of what’s ahead, Reagan’s words of 30 years ago ring just as true. “The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted,” he said, “it belongs to the brave.”

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