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COUNTDOWN TO DISASTER : Challenger's Last Flight : 8. LAUNCH PAD : 'The Whole Crew Is Relaxed'

February 09, 1986

Just as NASA promised, it became routine. Twenty-four shuttles went up. Payloads were carried. Experiments were conducted. Twenty-four shuttles came down.

Sometimes, of course, there were snags. Satellites spun into the wrong orbits. Engines too often needed overhaul. Clouds whitewashed the sun, delaying launches days at a time.

But mostly, success begat success. America's Space Transportation System had become a well-practiced spectacle, repetition robbing it of awe and attention.

The press corps thinned. Network television stopped live coverage. Crowds no longer arrived days in advance to claim the best shoreline views.

So this flight was something of an emotional rekindling. It possessed much of the spirit of the first missions. A schoolteacher would be aboard, and people were interested. Alongside the "right stuff" would be sitting the standard issue.

America knew her name, Sharon Christa McAuliffe. She had wavy hair and a fetching grin. She had two children, Scott, 9, and Caroline, 6. Scott had donated Fleegle from his much-treasured frog collection to serve as Challenger's mascot.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, the seven crew members arrived in Florida, some aboard gleaming white T-38 jet trainers, others on an executive jet that NASA had outfitted as a shuttle simulator.

Reporters were there, plenty of them, twice the usual number. The teacher was the angle. The teacher got the questions.

"I am so excited to be here," she said, already well-used to interviews. "I don't think any teacher has ever been more ready to have two lesson plans. I've been preparing these since September, and I just hope everybody tunes in."

McAuliffe was advertising for her upcoming show. She would be teaching two half-hour lessons during her fourth day in space. Both would beam into thousands of classrooms via satellite.

And she was delighted to be Challenger's "teachernaut." For the benefit of the cameras, she showed off a blue shirt she had given her fellow crew members. In the center was the seal of her home state, New Hampshire. The sight of it evoked some cheers.

Already, New Hampshire had a celebration going along the Florida Space Coast. State education officials were in town. So were McAuliffe's fellow teachers at Concord High. So were Concord city VIPs.

Travel agents had booked charter flights. Other people arrived on buses. They crowded the motels on U.S. 1. They reveled with Yankee pride.

McAuliffe's husband, Steven, a lawyer, kept daughter Caroline at his side and shied from the press. The two slept at a NASA condominium near the space center.

Scott stayed with his classmates, 17 third-graders from the Kimball Elementary School. They went to Disney World, then they toured the space center. They were dressed alike in white sweat shirts and blue caps. "So we don't lose them," a teacher explained.

They gaped at Challenger, hitched up at launch pad 39B. They visited Spaceport USA, NASA's modest museum. They touched the spacecraft in the outside "rocket garden." And they watched the giant-screen film, "The Dream Is Alive."

"Christa's kid," Scott had written on his backpack.

The teacher's parents, Edward and Grace Corrigan of Framingham, Mass., did not want to miss a thing. They moved into a Cocoa Beach condominium where they entertained relatives and friends who were flooding in from across the country.

"We've been in touch with people we haven't seen in years," Edward Corrigan said happily.

Grace Corrigan allowed for a slight case of the jitters. "I'm getting a little more apprehensive as it gets nearer," she admitted.

And truly, the wait was nerve-racking. The weather teased. Gremlins made mischief.

Already, the original launch had been moved back three times because of delays in the preceding shuttle mission. Eventually, the date was set for late Saturday afternoon, Jan. 25.

But then came yet another postponement, this time caused by a dust storm in the Sahara, halfway around the world. The dust hung like a hazy curtain over an emergency landing site in Dakar, Senegal.

NASA quickly subbed with Casablanca, Morocco, where visibility was better. But the runway there has no high-power landing lights. The launch again had to be rescheduled, pushed back till the morning of Sunday, Jan. 26.

This time, the weather played a hoax. On Saturday, the skies darkened and the air turned moist. Forecasters predicted a cold front and thunderstorms.

Cautiously, NASA scrubbed the Sunday launch and penciled in Monday. But when Sunday came the weather was nearly perfect, clear and calm.

The shuttle could have gone had they waited it out.

If all the delays annoyed the astronauts--and they surely had--none let on. The Corrigans had eaten a picnic lunch with the crew. Grace reported that her daughter "is bubbling all over--the whole crew is relaxed."

On Sunday, commander Dick Scobee and pilot Mike Smith practiced flying maneuvers in the T-38s. Then they switched to the executive jet, the one modified to handle like Challenger. They rehearsed landings on the shuttle runway.

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