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COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER : Challenger's Last Flight : 1. LIFTOFF : 'Challenger, Go at Throttle Up'

February 09, 1986

America avoided disaster in space through 52 manned missions spanning 25 years. Then it happened. Perhaps the day was inevitable, but few were prepared. Now, as a search for answers--and for understanding--rises from deep within the national psyche, The Times presents this special report.

There comes an instant when all the noise and pressure turns to calm, when the shaking suddenly ceases and the ride gets smooth.

The twin rocket boosters that have punched a path into the heavens have dropped away, and the sky is jet black. Gravity no longer tugs.

This is space.

Four aboard the space shuttle Challenger had already known this instant, and their three colleagues were eager to find it out.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 12, 1986 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 1 National Desk 2 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
In the special section Sunday on the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, a drawing depicting the shuttle during launching inadvertently reversed the latitude numbers for the area near the Kennedy Space Center. The northern latitude is 29 degrees and the southern latitude is 28 degrees.

One of the newcomers was a Concord, N.H., social studies teacher who carried into the adventure her grandmother's watch and her son's stuffed frog.

By her own description, she would be America's first "ordinary person" to go up, the common man's emissary into the ether of the right stuff. To her, and to a confident nation, it was the ultimate field trip.

At 73 seconds into the flight, the spellbinding instant--this burst into orbital serenity--was less than six minutes away. They were riding a shaft of fire to get there.

Computers guided and throttled the ascent. Rockets gulped fuel. Roger. Go.

Then the explosion.

"Obviously, a major malfunction," was the delayed response from the NASA flight narrator.

His voice was restrained in the familiar space program monotone. It seemed too controlled for the calamity obvious on millions of televisions in millions of living rooms:

"We have no downlink. We have a report from the flight dynamics officer that the vehicle has exploded. The flight director confirms that."

So there it was, disaster in space, the fiery horror of failure. Surely, they were all dead, the teacher, the commander, the pilot, the laser physicist, the three engineers.

America, first to the moon, would be left to scavenge for debris, to grieve and console, to question plans and purposes in the trembling aftermath of a fireball in the Florida sky.

"Sometimes when we reach for the stars, we fall short," President Reagan said in a eulogy three days later. "But we must pick ourselves up again and press on despite the pain."

That is the inclination. Space is the next frontier, and this is a country forged from the frontier spirit. Since 1961, when President John F. Kennedy pledged victory in what was then called the "space race," the nation has spent $117 billion on skyward exploration.

But there is now another dreadful price tag affixed to the national pride. The videotape rolls and the images repeat. Experts are quick to remind that too much has been taken for granted, that the space shuttle is the most complex flying machine ever built. It is fueled by propellants mightier than anything but a nuclear bomb.

Harnessing these tempests of hell seems to inevitably invite the demons of tragedy. Instead of a burst into serenity, Challenger's crew met with a cataclysm that now demands national introspection as well as the frantic search for clues.

It may be months, if ever, before the precise error is pinned down. But the broader causes are found in more than the nip of a frosty morning or the simple math of the odds.

In the last 12 days, it has become clear that the complete story of the shuttle's countdown to disaster stretches back more than 15 years to a chain of dollar-saving compromises. Design and operating procedures were tailored with the bottom line in mind.

What remains uncertain is if any of those compromises directly affected Challenger. Was the mistake in an engineer's miscalculation? In a manufacturer's defect? In the lack of inspection? In a ground crew shortcut?

"Where We've Been, Where We're Going," the 37-year-old teacher and mother of two, Sharon Christa McAuliffe, had planned to call one of the lessons she would teach from space.

She was an energetic, confident woman with a bounce in her step. Once, she had been urged to go to law school, as her husband had. She preferred the challenge of Room 305 at Concord High.

If a trip into space was an unusual breather from the classroom, she had reason to be confident in the safety of the 12-story orbiter. NASA's four shuttles--Atlantis, Discovery, Columbia and Challenger--had flown 24 missions and landings had been almost perfect. The space agency had not suffered a fatal accident since three Apollo astronauts perished in a 1967 launch-pad fire.

McAuliffe was riding a winner as she sat in the vehicle's mid-deck. To her left was Ellison Shoji Onizuka, 39, grandson of Japanese immigrants and a father of two. An aerospace engineer who had already experienced one shuttle flight, he was also the crew's devoted quipster. Among many tasks, he was to film Halley's comet with a hand-held camera.

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