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Observe 73 Seconds of Silence : Ex-Space Workers Mark Challenger Loss

January 29, 1987|PETER H. KING | Times Staff Writer

COCOA, Fla. — At precisely 11:38 a.m. Wednesday, the lights were dimmed in Room 310 of the Lifelong Learning Center at Brevard Community College and 40 people bowed their heads, remembering. For 73 seconds, the only sounds in the room were the somnolent drone of an air conditioner and the sniffles of a woman fighting back tears.

Then everyone stood, placed hands over hearts and recited the Pledge of Allegiance. There was no flag in the room, so most eyes were fixed upon the ceiling. After this was finished, they returned to plastic chairs and a discussion about the mechanics of finding a job.

The people in Room 310 are part of the debris of the Space Shuttle Challenger. One year ago, they had been employed at the Kennedy Space Center, members of the force of 16,000 workers needed to hurl space shuttles into orbit. Then, on Jan. 28--a minute and 13 seconds into a flight that had begun with a magnificent roar at 11:38 a.m.--it all went bad and the Challenger exploded, shattered and fell from the sky. And before long the layoffs began.

"There's a lot of mixed emotions in this room about where was the best place to be at 11:38 today," said Bob Friend, a 37-year-old data analyst who sat in the back row of the classroom. "All I know was I didn't want to be by myself."

The first anniversary of the destruction of the Challenger and its crew of seven was remembered all over the nation Wednesday and in different ways. Wreaths were placed on astronauts' graves. Flags were lowered to half staff. Prayers were said. President Reagan addressed space agency workers on closed circuit television, and the head of NASA consoled survivors of the crew at a private ceremony in Washington.

At the Kennedy Space Center, about 10 miles from here, workers paused at 11:38 a.m. for 73 seconds of silence. The flag in front of the launch grandstands--a placement photographers had found convenient for patriotically framing shots of shuttle blastoffs with Old Glory--was lowered by three security men. A few words were spoken by the new center director, and that was it.

There is not much going on at the space center these days. The three remaining shuttles are under wraps, undergoing minor modifications out of sight from the tourist buses that still course through the complex. A target date of February, 1988, has been set for the next launch, although not too many people expect it to be met. Launches of unmanned rockets, a secondary thrill in the heyday of shuttle liftoffs, are for now a focal point at the center.

One year and a day ago, the place was alive. Workers not involved with the Challenger liftoff were busy readying another spacecraft for the next launch--"in the flow," as they call it. Tourists were pouring in by the camperful to watch schoolteacher Sharon Christa McAuliffe become the first ordinary citizen in space. Everyone thought the biggest thing they had to worry about was yet another launch delay.

It was a time when shuttle launches were considered more or less routine and most Americans could not distinguish between a solid rocket booster and an O-ring. In short, a time past.

One shuttle activity of note took place this week at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, in a clearing amid palmettos and scrub brush. This is where they are burying the twisted remains of the Challenger.

A large yellow crane could be seen picking up a chunk of Challenger fuselage from a flatbed trailer. A porthole was visible on the piece. Slowly, it was lowered into a hole in the ground. A few workers peered into the hole, issued hand signals to colleagues below, and then prepared to grab another section.

Old Missile Silo

The hole is a decommissioned missile silo at the air force station. Once all 240 tons of debris is buried, the silo will be sealed. There are no plans to mark the site in a special way.

Elliott Kirklighter, a 20-year NASA veteran overseeing the burial, said the job began in early January and is about half-finished. He said some wreckage was harder to handle emotionally than others, and allowed that he will be "very happy" when it is over.

"I think everybody is ready to close out this operation and get back to shuttle operations as they were."

The sentiment was shared by some, but not all, of the former shuttle workers gathered in Room 310 at the community college here. A few talked longingly of returning to space work. Others, bitter, said they want to find an entirely different field, one where careers don't ride on the strength of rubber rocket seals.

Despite such differences, all seem haunted by a common vision, and it was that vision--twin fists of white smoke pawing unexpectedly through a too clear sky--that was prominent in their thoughts Wednesday.

The class had decided to observe the same ceremony as the workers at Kennedy. "Someone keep track of the time," one man had said as the class began. Around 11 a.m., everyone started checking watches. For reasons they did not explain, precision seemed to matter.

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