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COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER : Challenger's Last Flight : 6. CHALLENGER : 'You Folks Build Some Good Rockets'

February 09, 1986

Challenger would be their ship. Named for a naval vessel that explored vast expanses of the Atlantic and Pacific a century ago, the orbiter had become a 3-year-old workhorse of the four-orbiter fleet. Nine times it had soared into orbit. Nine times it had glowed the bright glow of re-entry. Nine times it had touched down safely on Earth.

At 9:44 a.m. on Nov. 6, 1985, after 7 days and 44 minutes in space, Challenger dropped from the blue sky over Edwards Air Force Base, landed on the dry lake bed and rolled the length of 30 football fields before braking to a gentle stop. It would be its last homecoming.

Routine, the aerospace experts said.

The landing "looked just the same as when it took off, except that instead of being vertical it was horizontal," said a NASA technician who would follow Challenger from Edwards to the next launch.

The spaceship was met by a fleet of trucks and crew, working quickly to cool it and purge it of potentially hazardous gases. Within an hour, the eight astronauts were out of the cockpit. Technicians removed the brakes, packed them in boxes and sent them to the manufacturer for inspection.

Four days later, Challenger was lifted in a giant sling, a modified Boeing 747 airliner was towed underneath and the two were bolted together. The 210,000-pound spacecraft rode piggyback as the jet hopped across the country back to Cape Canaveral, stopping for fuel three times along the way.

Awaiting Challenger at the Kennedy Space Center were the solid-fuel rocket boosters, the sleek white twins, and the large liquid-fuel tank.

Challenger, in a way, was the precocious child of the orbiting fleet. Only Columbia was older. But Columbia had originally been built for test flights. Challenger was born out of confidence, an "operational" orbiter is how the experts put it. Ejection seats, installed on Columbia's early flights, were never installed on Challenger.

It was built at a Rockwell International plant in the Antelope Valley, 50 miles northeast across the mountains from Los Angeles. Once completed, it was ferried to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards and eventually on to Florida.

At first, all went smoothly. But days before the scheduled first launch, NASA inspectors discovered hydrogen leaking from an engine. A small crack seemed to be the problem. But when the engine was replaced, the new engine also leaked. The leaks turned out to be the result of a basic design defect. All three main engines were overhauled.

Challenger finally lifted off on April 4, 1983, two months late. Its occupants made up for its disappointing delay by performing a dramatic, four-hour space walk. Over the next three years, it chalked up a series of firsts: first woman in space, first night launch and landing, first untethered space walk.

While it was the most-used orbiter, Challenger also became something of a hard-luck ship. After the fuel-line leaks that delayed the first mission, the third mission, in August, 1983, came close to disaster when the lining of the exhaust nozzle on one of its two solid rocket boosters almost burned through. Then a malfunctioning coolant valve delayed its eighth mission, and after the launch two weeks later, one engine shut down and Challenger made it into orbit on its two remaining engines.

In the space shuttle program, the orbiter has always been the star. Its coat of 30,000 heat-resistant tiles was painstakingly checked after each flight. Engineers tested and retested its computers and instruments. After all, it carried the experiments, the satellites and the human beings.

The controlled fury of the rocket boosters and the explosive power lurking in that massive fuel tank underneath were givens. That supporting cast had been punching holes in the sky for spacecraft long before they carried men and women.

The rockets' purity of purpose, the necessity of doing the job in a few minutes, made them easy to forget. Before the crowds at Cape Canaveral had left the parking lot, the two boosters were cold, empty shells bobbing in the blue Atlantic, and the great fuel tank had been burned to fragments by its fall through the atmosphere.

While those supporting characters were all but forgotten by sky watchers, they were foremost in the minds of the astronauts who had ridden their bucking force into orbit.

Astronaut Don Lind, a Challenger veteran, addressed himself to a sea of faces at a company "family day" in northern Utah one afternoon last summer. "You folks make it all happen. Without you we don't go anyplace," he said.

It happens there, at Morton Thiokol's Wasatch Division on about 2,000 acres of ruggedly beautiful, arid land in northern Utah. The shuttle's solid rocket boosters are created inside small, square buildings arranged in clusters and painted bright shades of blue, red and yellow.

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