Jan. 28 stands out to most space-minded people as the day NASA experienced its first in-flight disaster. In 1986, the space shuttle Challenger launched through frozen skies and exploded just one minute and 13 seconds after lift off.
The story is retold often, serving as a reminder of the inherent dangers of spaceflight and serving as a case study in engineering programs around the world. But there’s another side to the story that we hear far less often, and that’s the perspective of the men and women within NASA.
Today, 28 years after the challenger disaster, Hugh Harris, who was working as the chief of public information at Kennedy that day, shares his own account in a new e-book, “Challenger: An American Tragedy — The Inside Story From Launch Control.”
Harris began his NASA career in 1963 as an information specialist with the Lewis Research Centre in Cleveland. In 1968, he was promoted to chief of the Public Information Office before transferring to the Kennedy Spaceflight Centre in 1975 where he became director of public affairs.
At Kennedy, Harris was responsible for planning and administering programs designed to inform the public on the agency’s activities, results and the overall significance of the country’s aerospace programs. Among his duties was providing launch-day commentary for shuttle missions, a role that earned him the nickname of “the voice of NASA.”
When Harris drove out to Kennedy on the morning of Jan. 28, he was a seasoned launch veteran and could tell there was something different that day. His book paints the scene on the causeway that morning. It was quiet. Where people usually parked their cars and made fast friends with other launch viewers on the side of the road, there were only a few cars pulled over with their occupants huddled inside for warmth against the unseasonably cold winter morning.
From here, Harris recounts conversations he had with coworkers at Kennedy as the countdown progressed. There were discussions about the ice building up on the gantry, while the “ice team” made multiple trips to the launch pad to survey the situation.
Harris shares dialogue from inside the crew cabin during the countdown, from astronauts trying to keep their spirits up during delays, through the launch, to the final words from the crew before all data was lost from the spacecraft.
With the shuttle and its boosters raining down in pieces, Harris explains what happened inside the firing room. At one point, the press officers quickly began copying launch media — TV footage and images — knowing the originals would soon be impounded by security for use in the official investigation.
Harris shares his thoughts on NASA’s decision not to resume commentary immediately after the explosion and recounts the media frenzy that followed, of journalists watching recovery ships with night vision cameras in an attempt to see what was being dredged from the crash site while others used an amateur radio receiver to listen in on the chatter between these ships.
More than just a personal account of the disaster, Harris punctuates his book with conversations and interactions between himself and some of NASA key players, bringing the story to life. Throughout, Harris’ love for NASA and the shuttle program is obvious. He retired from the agency in 1998.
Photo: The solid fuel rocket booster of the space shuttle Challenger begins to explode over Kennedy Space Center, 72 seconds into its flight. Credit: AFP/Getty Images