CNSNews.com Reporters Reflect on Challenger

July 7, 2008 - 8:19 PM

(CNSNews.com) - The launch had been delayed almost a week because of bad weather and WFEA Radio, a small ABC affiliate, couldn't afford to keep David Thibault in Florida much longer.

Thibault was part of a large media contingent from New Hampshire, proud home of Christa McAuliffe, the schoolteacher with the endearing personality who was getting ready to accompany six NASA astronauts on a "field trip" to space.

When the sun rose in a clear blue sky over the Kennedy Space Center on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, reporters were relieved and excited to hear the countdown had begun. Thibault and others gathered to watch the blastoff from a vantage position in front of the VIP grandstand, just three miles from the launch pad.

At 11:28 local time, the engines roared and the Challenger lifted off, slowly at first. Thibault described for his listeners the "incredible reverberation" the spectators experienced a few seconds after the launch.

"It accelerated like nothing I've ever seen, the power is so astonishing," recalled Thibault, currently the managing editor of CNSNews.com.

But just 73 seconds into the flight, something went horribly wrong. Rudi Pole, a native of Connecticut who cheerfully endured a week of delays to watch the launch, was awestruck as he described for Thibault's listeners his feelings as the spaceship rose skyward.

"I wish I were up there," Pole said. "It's magnificent."

"The perfect launch ... " Thibault prompted.

Then there was a subdued gasp from the VIP stand as the crowd, which included New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu and members of the McAuliffe and astronauts' families, weren't quite sure if the explosion they just witnessed was a mishap or the separation of the space capsule from the booster rocket.

"There's the separation," Pole said, mistaking the explosion that claimed the lives of all aboard the Challenger.

At first the announcer spoke of "a major malfunction." It wasn't until a little later that they started to use the word "explosion."

"Within a few minutes they emptied the stands, put people back on the buses," Thibault recalled on the 15th anniversary of the tragedy. "No one knew what to make of it. It was outside their frame of reference. If it had been a car accident, you could relate to that, but to watch somebody you loved die in the explosion of the space shuttle, it was just not something they could comprehend. It was just not real."

There was no word on the fate of the crew. Paramedics parachuted into the area where the remainder of the spaceship fell into the ocean. Networks began to report that the space shuttle Challenger had exploded over the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, "a tremendous setback for NASA."

The scene in the media center immediately following the accident also was one of confusion, shock and denial. "We all had the same ashen-faced look," Thibault said, "like we'd just seen a ghost." Thibault flew back to cover the McAuliffe funeral in New Hampshire. "The state was in complete shock. Her students had actually watched it on TV."

Family Members Were Most Accepting of All

Scott Hogenson worked for an ABC affiliate in suburban Houston at the time of the Challenger accident. As radio news director, it was Hogenson's job initially to assign five reporters to cover the story.

"Most were young reporters who didn't have experience in how to sensitively report a tragedy," recalled Hogenson, executive editor of CNSNews.com. "We had a number of talks on a proper and humane way to talk to the astronauts' friends and colleagues and family members."

The hardest part was snapping the reporters out of their shock at seeing on TV what they would later describe as "the Y in the sky," the pattern of smoke the Challenger made when it blew up.

Reporters talked to officials at the Johnson Space Center, Mission Control in Houston and the families of astronauts who lived in the area, "who weren't that difficult to find."

Family members were the most accepting of all of the tragedy, Hogenson recalled. "One family member said, 'we live with this all the time, and we prepare for this. We hope it never happens, but we prepare for this.'"

When President Reagan addressed the nation on television, there wasn't a dry eye in the newsroom, Hogenson said.

"The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives," said Reagan, in what many consider to be the highpoint of his presidency. "We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

The event didn't become real for Hogenson until it came time to read brief profiles of all seven victims - Michael Smith, Dick Scobee, Judith Resnik, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, and Christa McAuliffe - on the air.

"It was shortly after the president's speech and I read the profiles one by one and I almost started to cry. It was the hardest thing to do, to not cry."