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John Zarrella: Lessons learned from Challenger

John Zarrella  
CNN's John Zarrella was at the Kennedy Space Center 15 years ago as NASA planned to send the first civilian into space aboard space shuttle Challenger. But 73 seconds after liftoff, everything changed.

ZARRELLA: On the morning of the Challenger accident it was bitterly cold, and we had been up at the Kennedy Space Center for several days. Launch had been repeatedly delayed because of weather, and a freeze was forecast the night before and the morning of the launch in the orange groves in central Florida.

So we went over to the Orlando area that morning, well before dawn, and went in the orange groves with some of the growers and watched as they watered the fields and burned their smudge pots to keep the orange trees from freezing, and we filed a piece for the network and then made our way back over to the Kennedy Space Center.

We had had very little sleep, only a couple of hours, but we expected that it would just another ordinary shuttle launch and then we would return to Miami.

Of course, when we got there the launch had been delayed because of the weather and the cold, and we waited with everyone else as the ice team went out to the launch pad to check the ice that had built up on the external tank. Finally, the go-ahead was given to continue the countdown.

At that point, we walked down to the countdown clock that sits at the edge of the lagoon, the clock that you see in so many camera shots from the Kennedy Space Center.

I was standing there with several other members of the media as Challenger finally lifted off. Of course, the first thing of significance that we heard was the "go for throttle up" command, which is the main engines throttling up for more power. Then 73 seconds into the launch we saw from ground level a giant cloud just envelop the entire vehicle. I remember very distinctly seeing sparks shooting out -- what looked to me like fireworks -- from the vehicle, and I remember thinking to myself, "Well, gee, that's a tribute to the teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe," the civilian teacher who was flying on Challenger.

The launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28, 1986, was routine until Mission Control issued the "go with throttle up" command  

From ground level we never saw what many people saw on CNN. On those cameras that were trained on the vehicle, people could see up close the giant fireball envelop the vehicle. We couldn't see that from ground level.

The next thing that we saw, after we saw these sparks flying from out from the cloud, was the solid rocket boosters spinning off, absolutely tumbling out away from the vehicle, and then the explosion of the solid rocket boosters as they were detonated by lane safety officers, whose responsibility it is to blow those things up in case of an emergency so that the debris and those boosters can't fall on any populated areas.

Something had gone wrong, but nobody knew exactly what it was. We all expected the vehicle to re-emerge from behind that cloud, and then there would be an RTLS, which is a return to launch site. But there was, of course, no return to launch site. But we did not know at the time that the vehicle was lost.

All of us began to run from down there back up to the press dome, where the media gathers to talk to the NASA public affairs officers. On my way back to the press dome I stopped at a camera mound, where the camera operators shot from, and I went to my cameraman, who was shooting the Challenger. I leaned over to him and I said, "Steve, what happened?"

And he looked away from the eyepiece and he just said to me, "It blew up."

Inside the press dome it was total bedlam. People were running every direction; public affairs officers from NASA, members of the media, experts who had gathered there for the launch. Everybody was just in full panic.

Members of the media were all screaming that they wanted to be taken over to the landing strip, which is a couple of miles from the press dome, still thinking that the shuttle might return. But NASA officials said no one could go over there.

At that point I ran back to our trailer up at the press site and called in to Atlanta. Tom Mintier was on the set doing the shuttle coverage, which he had done throughout all of the shuttle launches. Tom was narrating the pictures from NASA of what had happened, and I went into the control room and did a phone debrief of what the mood was, what the situation was on the ground at the Kennedy Space Center.

I remember very vividly those days leading up to the launch. The weekend before the launch there were many schoolchildren who were there. Their classes had come down to watch the liftoff. They were so proud that a teacher was going in to space, and they were so disappointed that the shuttle didn't lift off as scheduled, and they were going to have to go back home and watch it on TV. They wouldn't be able to be there at the Kennedy Space Center when the launch actually occurred. But there was so much excitement, so much buildup. NASA built it up, as well; first civilian in space, a teacher -- it sent all of the right messages back home. But it ended in such a terrible, terrible tragedy.

Q: Was there a complacency about how we not only put rockets up in space, but in how the media covered it?

ZARRELLA: Certainly, complacency had set in, not just in the media that covered it but in NASA itself. That came out in the Rogers Commission hearings that followed the Challenger accident.

We in the media got to expect that space flight was routine. After all, NASA had put 12 human beings on the surface of the moon and brought them all back safely. The only one -- Apollo 13 -- that almost didn't come back, did come back through the miraculous efforts of the people on the ground and, of course, the astronauts on board.

So there was a real degree of complacency in the media, and shuttles had been going up routinely for some years. There were never any problems; at least none that the media was fully aware of.

NASA also had gotten to the point where they were being pushed by schedule pressures to launch, and to launch on time. The shuttle had been billed as this workhorse vehicle that was going to be easy access to space. There were even predictions that they could fly 25 shuttle missions a year, just keep turning them around and flying them over and over again. They thought each vehicle could probably fly seven or eight times a year.

So NASA was under this tremendous pressure to have its space shuttle vehicle live up to the expectations, so they kept launching and they kept launching, and of course, in the Rogers Commission hearings that followed, it became quite clear that NASA had this push-push-push agenda with the shuttle program. But the shuttle was not any more than what you would call a research and development vehicle; it was not an airplane, it was not a 747. It was not going to be reliable, simple, cheap access to space. So clearly, it was a very tragic lesson that was learned by all of us.

Q: What is Christa McAuliffe's legacy?

ZARRELLA: I think that her legacy is that space flight is not -- and in our lifetimes, won't be -- routine. It's a lesson that was learned through this terrible tragedy.

But also, her legacy -- and the legacy of the other astronauts -- is that you have to continue pressing forward if there's ever to be any gain of knowledge. Once you stop pushing the envelope you stop learning, you stop growing as a person and as a civilization. Their legacy is that each and every one of us has to continue pushing that envelope, no matter the risks, no matter the costs. The risk is there, but you have to take that challenge.

That's what Challenger was all about. That is what all space flight is about. It's about pushing the envelope.

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January 26, 2001
Challenger anniversary evokes painful memories, hopeful future
January 28, 2000
Challenger mission lives on in space learning centers
January 28, 2000

The Christa McAuliffe Planetarium
 • Summary of the Challenger mission
Framingham State College
 • McAuliffe/Challenger Center
Florida Technological Research and Development Authority
The Astronauts Memorial Foundation

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