Photo of Challenger Crew

JSC Engineer Remembers Challenger Tragedy

by Jerry Woodfill

While the 1995 movie "Apollo 13" celebrated that mission's 25th anniversary, thrilling viewers in preparation for a run at an academy award for best picture, another mission had an anniversary, Sunday, Jan. 28, 1996, marking the tenth year since the sorrowful explosion of Challenger.

How different the outcome of the two journeys! As a NASA employee for more than 30 years, I witnessed both. My headset broadcast the words, "Houston, we've had a problem," on that April 13th evening in 1970. Years later, my eyes beheld the smoke and fire of Challenger on a TV monitor at the space center. Though the former mission ended happily and the latter tragically, recollections of Challenger remain poignant in the same triumphant sense as those aroused by the movie "Apollo 13."

Whether you subscribe to the philosophy that sometimes "bad things happen to good people" or to the biblical concept that "all things work together for good," the remembrance of the Challenger accident offers encouragement. Immediately following the explosion, I met with two friends in an adjacent office. We prayed...for the families of the crew...for the space program...for understanding of how such a terrible accident would occur.

Still shaken by the horrible scene viewed moments before, I drew a Bible, brought to work after the rescue of Apollo 13, from my desk. Randomly opening it, I began reading..."Now when Solomon had made an end of praying, the fire came down from heaven." (II Chronicles 7:1-4) I recalled praying just prior to launch. Yet, those who prayed, like Solomon, watched a fire descend from heaven - the remains of Challenger.

The reading continued: "the fire...consumed the sacrifices." Repeatedly that week, the theme surfaced that the Challenger crew had sacrificed their lives exploring the frontiers of knowledge. Verse one concluded with the words, "and the glory of the Lord filled the house." "What glory," I fretted, "comes from losing seven loved individuals and a two billion dollar vehicle?" Perhaps, those who flooded into NASA area churches for prayer that week asked a similar question. So large was the congregation at a special Catholic mass that the news media had difficulty finding room for cameras.

The third verse offered an answer to my doubts, "And when all the children...saw how the fire came down...(they said)...his mercy endures forever." This was a special mission for children. A school teacher named Christa McAuliffe would conduct lessons from space for classes throughout our country. Despite the trauma of Christa's untimely death, her dream for children endured in the creation of a network of Challenger Learning Centers.

Challenger Learning Centers

The concluding verse spoke of a "king" meeting with "all the people...before the Lord." Friday, of "Challenger Week," a hastily planned memorial service convened at Houston's Space Center. Though neither a king nor all the people of America attended, present were the President of the United States, the families of the crew, and more than 10,000 space center workers. "All the people" of America would share in the service through a live network television broadcast.

Overhead the roar of the astronauts' T-38 jets sounded from the north. Their fly-over would conclude the memorial. Sometime, between the scripture reading and presidential eulogy, a large cloud had appeared above the space center. Directly above, a lone jet broke formation ascending in the steep climb of the "missing man formation." At once, the jet disappeared in the overhead cloud. Many were reminded of President Reagan's words offered earlier that week: "We will never forget them or the last time we saw them...as they...slipped the surly bonds of Earth and touched the face of God."

Several weeks had passed, the flowers placed at the space center gate from people throughout the United States and world had withered. Nevertheless, few of us could talk about the accident with dry eyes. It was Valentine's Day, 1986. Walking past the visitor's center, I noticed an exhibit of placards displaying red hearts and children's paintings. Closer examination showed them to be messages written by school children to NASA's employees and the families of the Challenger crew members. This fitting commemorative poem by Julie Girvin, one of those school children, was among them.

I'd like to go up in the sky

Beyond the stars where planets lie

To see the craters of the Moon

Where we might all live someday soon

I'd like to see where astronauts land

And where the flag stands in the sand

Up where those seven brave people went

And just for us their lives they spent

For more on the Challenger Tragedy, click here.