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It happened in 1986....

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Bob Ebeling was a booster rocket engineer in 1986 when he and a handful of his colleagues were worried about the cold temperatures the night before the Challenger was set to launch. Ebeling died Monday at 89.

A cloud of vapor engulfs the space shuttle Challenger in a picture taken on the morning of January 28, 1986. The disaster claimed the lives of all seven astronauts on board, including high school teacher Christa McAuliffe, and brought NASA's human spaceflight program to an abrupt but temporary halt.



For example, one commonly repeated myth is that Challenger exploded 73 seconds after launching from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

"The shuttle itself did not explode," said Valerie Neal, space shuttle curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. "I think the origin of that myth is that it looked like an explosion, and the media called it an explosion."

Even NASA officials mistakenly called the event an explosion as the tragedy unfurled. For example, NASA public affairs officer Steve Nesbitt said at the time that "we have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded."

Investigations would later reveal, however, that what actually happened was much more complicated, curator Neal said.
The space shuttle's external fuel tank had collapsed, releasing all its liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen propellants. As the chemicals mixed, they ignited to create a giant fireball thousands of feet in the air. The shuttle itself, however, was still intact at this point and still rising, but it was quickly becoming unstable.

"The shuttle orbiter was trying very hard to stay on its path, because it sensed something very irregular was happening underneath it," Neal said.

"Finally it broke off the tank and—moving so fast but without its boosters and tank—it couldn't tolerate the aerodynamic forces.

"The tail and the main engine section broke off. Both of the wings broke off. The crew cabin and the forward fuselage separated from the payload pay, and those big chunks fell out of the sky, and they further broke up when they hit the water."

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I missed that tragedy by about a minute, came in for lunch and when I turned on the TV the incident had just occurred, the pieces were beginning to fall from the sky as I watched.  I had an afternoon Chem lab right after lunch, I skipped that to continue watching the coverage on TV. When I finally went in about an hour and a half late, the entire class was sitting in the lab watching the feed.  For several years afterwards, while teaching high school I heard numerous stories from kids who were watching it unfold while in elementary school, due to the whole "teacher in space" thing.  It essentially became that generation's "where were you when ..." moment, similar to the Kennedy assassination years earlier ...

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I was on the road with Tammy Wynette on that day. We were down there in Florida, and we had a clean up room at a Holiday Inn. We were inside the hotel room watching the launch, and one of our Roadies, a guy named Marty, was standing out on the balcony. We were hollering at him to come in the room to watch. I went out there to get him to bring him inside, and I looked up and there it was. He had been watching it out there and we were totally unaware inside the room.

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I was sitting on the fantail of the USS Sellers DDG-11, tied up to the pier in Guantanamo Bay Cuba. We'd done engineering drills all morning and a bunch of us went topside to watch. It was pretty shocking to see it happen. We got underway a few hours later to join the search effort.

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I was in college, and working on the loading dock of a KMart in West Palm FL. We had a perfect view of the direction of the launch site, and would often watch the launches. You couldn't make out the details, but you could see the fire from the rocket, and easily see the contrail left behind. So, I recognized that this was not a typical launch and something went terribly wrong. The entire store ran over to the Electronics department to watch the news reports on the wall of TV's.

That Y-shaped contrail is burned into my memory and I'll never forget it.

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