It Was A Long Day For Me. It Was A Long Day For The World.
By Cliff Lethbridge
This is a NASA photo of how the explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger looked from the vicinity of the Kennedy Space Center Press Site.
The above is a link to exclusive audio recorded by Spaceline Founder and President Cliff Lethbridge at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in the moments prior to, during and after the Challenger explosion. You may wish to listen to it as you follow along the text of the story below.
I wrote the following story “It Was a Long Day for Me. It Was a Long Day for the World.” on January 28, 2000 in commemoration of the 14th anniversary of the Challenger tragedy. I have consistently refused offers to write about the accident and my memories of it, but I believed after 14 years it was time to put some of my thoughts in writing. At the time I did this strictly as therapy for myself, but after sharing the account with several close friends and associates, I decided it may be of value to others.
On January 28, 1986 I was at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site, the location I have been for every Space Shuttle launch before and since. I was, at the time, a 24-year-old part-time reporter for WTAI/WVTI Radio in Melbourne, Florida. The day started like any other, but the situation obviously changed very quickly. Like others in the surprisingly tiny corps of press that arrived to cover the launch, I was ill prepared for what actually happened. I had planned on being home in time for lunch, but ended up spending nearly 15 hours on site reporting on the tragedy for dozens of news organizations relayed to me by telephone via the Melbourne studios of WTAI/WVTI Radio.
I suppose memories of that entire day would fill a book, and maybe someday they will. But in the meantime, I have penned an account of the first critical minutes. These were ten minutes that seemed like an eternity. My account is written in chronological order and includes the exact word-for-word transcript from a cassette tape I recorded live in the minutes before, during and after launch. For clarity I added an exact, word-for-word transcript of the actual NASA launch commentary. For emphasis, I included my own thoughts at the time, to the best of my recollection.
It should be noted that the account I have made available here has been altered from the original. I had originally left it up to the reader to determine which lines were from the transcript of my tape, the NASA transcript and my thoughts. Lines from my cassette tape transcript were started and ended by quotation marks, the NASA transcript was written in capital letters and my thoughts were written like typical text. To provide additional clarity for the Internet audience, we have color coded the text as follows:
The lines taken from the transcript of my cassette tape are shown in: Blue
The lines taken from the NASA transcript are shown in: RED
The lines representing my thoughts are shown in: BLACK
In addition, there were several expletives uttered onto my cassette tape by myself and a fellow journalist. I included those in the original story, but these have been noted as (expletive deleted) here. Other strong language I included in representing my own thoughts have also been noted this way. I do not wish to offend anyone visiting this website, but I did want the original account to be completely accurate.
It Was a Long Day for Me. It Was a Long Day for the World.
By Cliff Lethbridge
Founder and President
Man, it sure is cold out here.
“Teacher in Space Mission 51-L, January 28, 1986!”
COMING UP ON THE 30-SECOND POINT IN OUR COUNTDOWN…T-MINUS 30 SECONDS AND WE’VE HAD A GO FOR AUTO-SEQUENCE START…
THE S.R.B. HYDRAULIC POWER UNITS HAVE STARTED…T-MINUS 21 SECONDS…AND THE SOLID ROCKET BOOSTER ENGINE GIMBAL NOW UNDERWAY…
T-MINUS 15 SECONDS…T-MINUS 10…9…8…7…6…WE HAVE MAIN ENGINE START…4…3…2…1…AND LIFTOFF…LIFTOFF OF THE 25TH SPACE SHUTTLE MISSION AND IT HAS CLEARED THE TOWER…
Wow! This is great seeing the first Shuttle launched from Pad 39B. The Shuttle is actually facing us at the Press Site. This is a much better view indeed!
“Oh, what a beautiful view from here!”
GOOD ROLL PROGRAM CONFIRMED…CHALLENGER NOW HEADING DOWNRANGE…
The noise just hit me big time. Wow! Seems to be easily the loudest one I’ve heard!
ENGINES BEGINNING THROTTLING DOWN NOW…AT 94 PERCENT…NORMAL THROTTLE FOR MOST OF THE FLIGHT IS 104 PERCENT…WE’LL THROTTLE DOWN TO 65 PERCENT SHORTLY…ENGINES AT 65 PERCENT…THREE ENGINES RUNNING NORMALLY…THREE GOOD FUEL CELLS…THREE GOOD A.P.U.’S…VELOCITY 22 HUNDRED 57 FEET PER SECOND…ALTITUDE 4.3 NAUTICAL MILES…DOWNRANGE DISTANCE 3 NAUTICAL MILES…ENGINES THROTTLING UP…THREE ENGINES NOW AT 104 PERCENT…(CHALLENGER, GO AT THROTTLE UP…ROGER, GO AT THROTTLE UP)…
What the (expletive deleted) just happened? What is that big puff of white smoke? The S.R.B. separation shouldn’t have caused all that smoke. Isn’t it too early for S.R.B. separation? What the (expletive deleted) just happened? Maybe it just looks different from Pad B? I don’t know!
ONE MINUTE, FIFTEEN SECONDS…VELOCITY TWENTY-NINE HUNDRED FEET PER SECOND…ALTITUDE NINE NAUTICAL MILES…DOWNRANGE DISTANCE SEVEN NAUTICAL MILES…
What the (expletive deleted)? The S.R.B.’s are flying off on their own! My God, look at all that stuff falling. What the (expletive deleted) happened?
“Hey, that ain’t right!”
I have to get back to the grandstand and see if anybody saw anything I missed. What did it look like on the television monitors?
FLIGHT CONTROLLERS HERE LOOKING VERY CAREFULLY AT THE SITUATION…OBVIOUSLY A MAJOR MALFUNCTION…WE HAVE NO DOWNLINK…
“Hey, Ray! That didn’t look right to me! (No way!) That was well before S.R.B. separation! (They said they’re coming back!) They’re coming back here? Ah, (expletive deleted)!”
WE HAVE A REPORT FROM THE FLIGHT DYNAMICS OFFICER THAT THE VEHICLE HAS EXPLODED…FLIGHT DIRECTOR CONFIRMS THAT…WE ARE LOOKING AT CHECKING WITH THE RECOVERY FORCES TO SEE WHAT CAN BE DONE AT THIS POINT…
“Oh, no! (expletive deleted)! Ah, this is…(It exploded?)”
CONTINGENCY PROCEDURES ARE IN EFFECT…
“Man, you could see that thing going, Ray.”
WE WILL REPORT MORE AS WE HAVE INFORMATION AVAILABLE…AGAIN TO REPEAT WE HAVE A REPORT RELAYED THROUGH THE FLIGHT DYNAMICS OFFICER THAT THE VEHICLE HAS EXPLODED…WE ARE NOW LOOKING AT ALL THE CONTINGENCY OPERATIONS AND AWAITING WORD FROM ANY RECOVERY FORCES IN THE DOWNRANGE FIELD…
“Oh, (expletive deleted)! This is terrible! I gotta run, Ray. This is terrible!”
Okay. Get a grip on yourself. You’re here to cover the launch. It doesn’t matter what happened. You gotta get a grip on yourself and get to work. Why did they have to disconnect the (expletive deleted) telephone on the only day I need it? Gotta get to the pay phones in the dome. I bet they’ll be all taken already. (expletive deleted)!
THIS IS MISSION CONTROL HOUSTON…WE HAVE NO ADDITIONAL WORD AT THIS TIME…REPORTS FROM THE FLIGHT DYNAMICS OFFICER INDICATE THAT THE VEHICLE APPARENTLY EXPLODED AND THAT IMPACT IN THE WATER AT A POINT APPROXIMATELY TWENTY-EIGHT POINT SIX-FOUR DEGREES NORTH EIGHTY POINT TWO-EIGHT DEGREES WEST…WE ARE AWAITING VERIFICATION FROM…AS TO THE LOCATION OF THE RECOVERY FORCES IN THE FIELD…TO SEE WHAT MAY BE POSSIBLE AT THIS POINT…AND WE WILL KEEP YOU ADVISED AS FURTHER INFORMATION BECOMES AVAILABLE…THIS IS MISSION CONTROL…
Great! One pay phone empty. (expletive deleted)! The line’s busy. Okay, relax. Try again. (expletive deleted)! It’s busy again! I bet they’re freaking down there. Listeners are probably jamming the phone lines. Call the operator and break in!
“Operator, I have an emergency call I need placed to (number deleted). I need you to place the call. This is very important! The quarter’s in! I’ll put the quarter in right now! I want you to place it, thank you.”
What am I going to say? I don’t know anything. Oh, well. At least I’m here and I’ve got a phone. Ringing! Thanks, operator!
“Yeah, this is Cliff! There’s been an explosion and there’s no word on what happened. Mike! There’s been an explosion! No, nobody knows anything. There’s been no word. There’s been word of a water impact, I don’t know. I want to be on the air now. Okay. Well, I saw it. I don’t know what they’re giving you. It’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever seen. Yeah. Please hurry, because I’m very excited, okay? I don’t hear anything. All I hear is you. I don’t know. I can’t concentrate. Yeah. They’re not gonna dump it. They’ll stay until there’s word also, but since I’m here I want to be on, this is, you know. Well, let me talk to Steve. I’m here with an ear to Mission Control.”
Okay, calm down. They’re probably freaking down there. God, I’m not going to get on the air if they stick with the network. The network will be on all day with this. But if I don’t talk now I’m going to get sick.
THIS IS MISSION CONTROL HOUSTON…WE ARE COORDINATING WITH RECOVERY FORCES IN THE FIELD…RANGE SAFETY EQUIPMENT…RECOVERY VEHICLES INTENDED FOR THE RECOVERY OF THE S.R.B. IN THE GENERAL AREA…THOSE PARACHUTES ARE BELIEVED TO BE PARAMEDICS GOING INTO THAT AREA…TO REPEAT WE HAD AN APPARENTLY NORMAL ASCENT WITH THE DATA COMING TO ALL POSITIONS BEING NORMAL…
“Yeah. This is Cliff.”
UP THROUGH APPROXIMATELY THE TIME OF MAIN ENGINE THROTTLE BACK UP TO ONE HUNDRED-FOUR PERCENT…AT APPROXIMATELY A MINUTE OR SO INTO THE FLIGHT THERE WAS AN APPARENT EXPLOSION…THE FLIGHT DYNAMICS OFFICER REPORTED…TRACKING REPORTED…THAT THE VEHICLE HAD EXPLODED…AND IMPACTED THE WATER IN AN AREA APPROXIMATELY LOCATED AT TWENTY-EIGHT POINT SIX-FOUR DEGREES NORTH…EIGHTY POINT TWO-EIGHT DEGREES WEST…RECOVERY FORCES ARE PROCEEDING TO THE AREA…INCLUDING SHIPS AND A C-ONE-THIRTY AIRCRAFT…FLIGHT CONTROLLERS REVIEWING THEIR DATA HERE IN MISSION CONTROL…WE WILL PROVIDE YOU WITH MORE INFORMATION AS IT BECOMES AVAILABLE…THIS IS MISSION CONTROL HOUSTON…
“Hello! Yeah. Look, if they don’t want to go to me, tell me now because I’m about to lose my breakfast, okay? Okay. Bye.”
And bye, Dick, Mike, Ellison, Ron, Judy, Greg and Christa.
This is a nice quiet place to lose my breakfast. Get a grip. It’s going to be a long day.
It was a long day for me. It was a long day for the world.