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NEWS | Jan. 28, 2013

73 seconds: where were you?

By Senior Airman Jarad A. Denton 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

It took 73 seconds for the space shuttle Challenger to explode after its launch at 11:38 a.m. Eastern Standard Time from Cape Canaveral, Fla., Jan. 28, 1986.

It took 73 seconds for an o-ring in the right solid rocket booster to fail, causing the death of all seven shuttle crewmembers - as the flaming debris scattered across the Atlantic Ocean bordering the Florida coast.

Before the launch, the Challenger crew said they were excited to venture into space.

"Let me say that it's really a pleasure to be back. I'm really looking forward to going and flying this one," said U.S. Air Force Col. and NASA Astronaut Ellison Onizuka, STS 51-L Challenger mission specialist, during a press conference before the launch. "I think we've got some real interesting payloads. The mission is a great mission - we're looking forward to it; and I think we're ready to go fly."

Challenger only flew 18 miles before exploding. Onizuka and the rest of the crew were not killed instantly in the blast. As the shuttle was torn apart by sequential explosions, the pieces of the spacecraft continued to travel upward - reaching 65,000 feet before plummeting down toward the water. The cabin hit the ocean two minutes and 45 seconds after the breakup, and all investigations indicated the crew was still alive until then.

"We've never lost an astronaut in flight - we've never had a tragedy like this," President Ronald Reagan said during an address to the nation after the disaster. "But perhaps we've forgotten the courage it took for the crew of the shuttle. But they, the Challenger 7, were aware of the dangers, overcame them and did their jobs brilliantly. We mourn seven heroes."

Onizuka was joined in his ultimate sacrifice by mission commander Francis Scobee, U.S. Navy Capt. Michael Smith, Dr. Judith Resnik and Dr. Ronald McNair - mission specialists; and Gregory Javis and Sharon Christa McAuliffe, payload specialists.

"We mourn their loss as a nation, together," Reagan continued. "To the families of the seven, we cannot bear as you do the full impact of this tragedy. But we feel the loss, and we're thinking about you so very much."

Twenty-seven years later, the pain of the tragedy is still felt by those who share ties with Joint Base Langley-Eustis and the adjacent NASA Langley Research Center. They still remember where they were when the Challenger exploded.

"I was at home due to a teacher's workday," said Joanne Tanner on the JBLE Facebook page. "My brother came running into my bedroom to tell me of the explosion and I was simply dumbfounded. Later, in my early 20's I went to my late father's class reunion at the Naval Academy and met the widow of one of the astronauts. She was so kind to me and it brought the tragedy even more home. Now I am married to an Air Force retiree who [was] once stationed on NASA Langley, and we often eat in the very same cafeteria the visiting astronauts ate at when they were here."

Robert Moyer also shared his memory of Challenger on the JBLE Facebook.

"I was in high school in Louisiana," he said. "A classmate stopped me in the hall and said, 'hey, the shuttle blew up.' I told him that if that was a joke, it wasn't funny. I went to the band room because I knew that my band director had a TV in his office, and that's where I first saw it happen."

Truthfully, many people did not see what has been remembered as a "live broadcast." All major broadcast stations had cut away from the launch, only to return with taped replays. However, the video of the shuttle's fuel tank ripping apart - forming a huge fireball at 46,000 feet, has been burned into the memory of a generation.

"Your loved ones were daring and brave," Reagan said. "But they had that special grace, that special spirit that says 'give me a challenge and I'll meet it with joy.'"

As the president said, that grace did not extinguish when the shuttle's sequential explosions caused metal debris to rain from the sky, serving as a chilling reminder to a nation of the many dangers astronauts willingly face in pursuit of the scientific discovery and advancement.

"They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths," Reagan said. "They wished to serve and they did. They served all of us."

The president continued his tribute to the Challenger's crew.

"We've grown used to wonders in this century - it's hard to dazzle us," he said. "But for twenty-five years the United States space program has been doing just that. We've grown used to the idea of space, and perhaps we forget that we've only just begun. We are still pioneers."

With the briefest pause, the president looked out to the American people and solidified the memory of Challenger 7 into national history.

"They - the members of the Challenger crew, were pioneers."