KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — The space shuttle Challenger blew apart shortly after liftoff Tuesday, killing all six crew members and a schoolteacher chosen to become the first private American citizen to venture into space.
The horrible spectacle occurred at 8:39 a.m. PST slightly more than one minute into what had appeared to be a perfect blastoff from the Kennedy Space Center.
It was witnessed with stunning clarity by thousands of spectators here and millions more Americans watching on television. Extraordinary attention was focused on the mission because of the presence aboard of Sharon Christa McAuliffe, a 37-year-old high school teacher from New Hampshire and a mother of two small children.
"This was truly a national loss," said President Reagan, who last year declared that an educator should be the first everyday American to ride on a shuttle mission. "We mourn their loss as a nation together," he said in a nationally televised statement.
The President postponed for one week his State of the Union address scheduled for Tuesday night.
'Small Amount' of Debris
After the explosion, helicopters and ships converged on an offshore point 18 miles downrange from where the Challenger disappeared from monitors. By nightfall, the searchers had found only "a small amount" of debris, including heat-resistant tiles from the shuttle, and no signs of survivors.
National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials said they did not know what triggered the fireball. An immediate internal investigation was ordered, and all shuttle activity was suspended. In his statement, Reagan vowed that there would be future shuttle flights.
The explosion came at one of the most critical points in the launch routine. One minute into the blastoff, commander Francis R. Scobee received preplanned instructions to restore engines to full power.
They had been slowed to decrease air pressure on the spacecraft, as well as on the expendable, auxiliary fuel tank and booster rockets needed to propel it into orbit. Pushing the engines back to full power would subject the spacecraft to the most extreme pressure during the entire procedure.
"Go with throttle up," a controller in the Johnson Space Center in Houston told Scobee.
"Roger," Scobee said, "go with throttle up."
His were the last words heard from the shuttle. At the precise moment Scobee's transmission ended, television replays showed, flames appeared to shoot from the rear of the main fuel tank, a rust-colored, 15-story cylinder loaded with 1,589,000 pounds of liquid fuel, attached to the shuttle's belly.
In the next millisecond, the tank erupted. The force obliterated the spacecraft.
The two solid rocket boosters peeled away from the side of the apparatus and tumbled earthward. Dozens of smaller pieces of the shuttle craft rained down in lazy arcs, leaving eerie white contrails in the blue sky.
Many spectators here were novice shuttle watchers who mainly had been drawn by McAuliffe. They first thought that the fireworks-like spectacle was part of the normal procedure. They greeted it with cheers as they scanned the skies for a sight of the white-and-black Challenger.
At the press gallery, however, veteran space reporters and NASA public affairs officials sensed disaster. Some began speaking frantically in the technical, acronym-laden lexicon found in abundance here.
"RTLS! RTLS!" several shouted at once, indicating they believed that the boosters had been blown away to accommodate an emergency return to the landing site.
They looked in vain for the spacecraft and listened hopefully for the sound of the sonic boom that would signal a return approach.
"Where's the bird?" a disbelieving Time magazine correspondent said, his eyes rimmed red with tears. "God, where's the bird?"
It quickly became clear to all that something was terribly wrong.
The most noticeable sign was that the thunderous roar of blastoff had dissolved into a haunting and complete silence.
The calm but subdued voice of NASA Mission Control announcer Steven Nesbitt in Houston broke the quiet.
"Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation, obviously a major malfunction," he said.
The announcement was followed by a tense, 40-second silence. Disbelief was the dominant emotion.
Then Nesbitt confirmed the worst fear: "We have the report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that. We are looking at, uh, checking with the recovery forces to see what can be done at this point."
At the spectator gallery, a few hundred yards from the press grandstands, the crowd of teachers, schoolchildren and family friends who had come to watch the blastoff stood stunned in the aftermath. One young man with a beard sat on the cold pavement, his legs crossed, sobbing as he clutched in his hands a camera brought to gather mementos of the event.