Author Topic: Me and 51-L  (Read 4454 times)

Offline Jim

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Me and 51-L
« on: 01/28/2018 07:53 PM »
In 1986, I was stationed at Los Angeles AFS assigned to what could be called the Air Force Shuttle Program Office.  I was in the System Requirements Group, which was responsible with working with NASA on manifesting payloads and experiments onto the shuttle.  Our office consolidated all the requirements from the local spacecraft program offices, the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization and NRO (at the time, it wasn’t acknowledged as the NRO, just national programs) and put together a budget for negotiations with NASA.  There wasn’t any real contention with NASA at the time, since there were “plenty” of shuttle flights and the DOD was still transitioning from ELV’s to the shuttle.  At the time, there had been only two DOD missions.  Each year, the three groups would meet in what was called the DOD Space Shuttle Users’ Committee.  There the DOD shuttle mission model (number of flights per year) for the next 5 years would be agree upon.  The meeting was 2-3 days, with the early days worked by staffers and the last days is where the generals would come in a rubber stamp the results.  Part of the meetings would include briefings on the status of various DOD shuttle systems (like IUS, SLC-6, etc) as well as status of the shuttle’s ability to meet DOD requirements (such as payload to orbit).

I was a young 1st Lieutenant accompanying my colonel and major to the meeting.  It was my first trip to the Pentagon and a little apprehensive.  I was already coming from a base that was top heavy and had more than 30 colonels; now I am going to a place where a full bird colonel feels like me.  The early meetings (January 27th) were to be held at the ANSER corp headquarters and then move to the Pentagon the next day.  At the meetings at ANSER, I was trying to find the status of the shuttle launch.  No internet, no satellite TV, no network coverage, and NASA TV wasn’t widely distributed among cable systems at the time.  CNN didn’t cover until launch was imminent.  So, the only resource available was the National Space Society’s shuttle hotline.  It was a 900 number that charged by the minute, but it was a direct feed of the NASA TV audio.  ANSER had these phone booths (they weren’t pay phones) which allow for some privacy.  I was trying to call the hotline but couldn’t make the connect.  ANSER had a block on 900 numbers (for good reasons) and I couldn’t assign the charges to my home phone (a 3rd number).  Somehow, found out that the launch was scrubbed on the 27th.

On the 28th, went to the Pentagon for the meetings.  Tried messing around with the phones but gave up.  Was sitting in a conference room taking notes, when a colonel barged in the room and said the shuttle was in the water.  We went to the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Public Affairs and there were 4 TV’s on, CNN and the 3 major networks.  Spent the rest of the day in that room trying figure out what happened.  Later in the evening, went back to the hotel and called my wife.  I was distraught because didn’t know what was going to happen to my career and life.  The next day, the meeting was still held with pall over the room.  It was decided that a baseline mission model would be agreed upon that all studies and analysis going forward would be based on. 

Once we got back to LA, my job became very busy we worked on various stand-down scenarios.  It seemed as each week passed after the accident, we were working on a stand-down scenario that was 3 months later than the previous.   It didn’t settle down until the summer when everything sorted out.  Some of the studies that came out my office were the increase in number of Titan IV’s from 10 to 41, the Delta II program for GPS and the Atlas II program for DSCS.

Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #1 on: 01/28/2018 08:21 PM »
Dark days... Thanks for sharing your personal story with us Jim...
"The laws of physics are unforgiving"
~Rob, Physics instructor, aviator, vintage auto racer

Offline Tomness

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #2 on: 01/28/2018 09:58 PM »
Before I was even born. Could only imagine the stress you and your family & all of your brothers and sisters in AF & NASA trying to come back from that.  Thank you Jim.

Offline jabe

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #3 on: 01/28/2018 10:41 PM »
my story...
was the 1st shuttle launch I ever missed.. I was in 3rd year university and was playing snooker in the university games room.(Snooker is a game all physics geeks should know how to play btw) and the time escaped me..my ride home came up and said..."the shuttle just exploded"..my reply was "yeah..right".... so we went down to the main atrium to watch the news with the other 100 or so who came to see what is up...

Offline edkyle99

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #4 on: 01/28/2018 10:44 PM »
I watched it happen from a second floor office window of the O&C Building, where I worked as a payload processing engineer.  I watched a launch from indoors for the first time that day because it was cold outside - I had seen my first Florida snowflakes early that morning. 

I saw a flash and immediately turned and ran down the stairs and outside, the thunder of other footsteps behind me.  Outside, with other Space Center employees, I watched the smoke plumes and the glittering flashing of a billion pieces of metal reflecting sunlight in that clear blue sky as they tumbled toward the Atlantic.  It was apparent that the crew was not coming back. 

I was stunned and heartbroken like everyone else.  I had just seen the astronauts leaving our building that morning.  Soon, I would see their families returning to walk through that same doorway, their arms wrapped around one another in absolute grief. 

I was also selfishly worried.  My team had participated in the IUS/TDRS payload processing.  Had we done something wrong?  Quickly enough, those worries were abated.  Instead, as the days passed, I grew angry after learning about the SRB issues and the "management decision", etc.

It was only years later that I began to view the catastrophe within the context of the overall history of spaceflight.  STS-51L would turn out to be one of a number of key inflection points that would lead us to where we are today.  In its wake, the U.S. government finally really started supporting commercial launch services by removing ELV payloads from Shuttle.  That was, sadly, a step far too-hard-won. 

 - Ed Kyle

Offline MATTBLAK

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #5 on: 01/28/2018 10:57 PM »
I was just a teenager still living with my parents, working my first full-time job. Because of the international time difference, I was woken by my Mother and told she'd heard on the morning 6:00am news bulletin on Radio 1-ZB Auckland that the 'Challenger' had "exploded into a thousand pieces" only a minute after launch" (73 seconds actually). I sat up in bed, just totally stunned.

"That's the one with the School Teacher aboard!" I told my Mum. There was no live, 24 hour TV news in New Zealand in those days - only if you were one of the lucky few to have Sky TV News and CNN through the Sky TV package. I got up and numbly went through my routine and went to work on my Yamaha. I worked at a local Bookstore and saw with disappointment that morning newspaper had been printed before the tragedy. I had to listen to the radio news on the hour, all day to repetitive "No hope of survival" statements. Finally at 4pm, the afternoon paper "The Auckland Star" arrived and my mouth hung open - there was a full, front page spread picture of the now-legendary explosion and curling path SRBs coming out of it. I kept two copies of the paper, but all these years later; I don't know what happened to them. I still have my STS-107 Columbia papers, though.

For the rest of the week; I wore a black armband that I'd fashioned myself. Some people thought I was nuts.

https://i.pinimg.com/736x/11/e9/bb/11e9bba44479b412d50e5bcf39407ec0--space-shuttle-challenger-january-.jpg

EDIT: With you, my friends, indulgence - I have a link to my Vimeo channel's compilation on Challenger. The first part is a genuine TVNZ clip presented by Phillip Sherry, the leading NZ newscaster of the time. I read years later that he was very interested in Space Exploration and was stunned by the accident. I think you can see some emotion on his face and hear it in his voice. The video then segues into classic American coverage, played on TVNZ. I've been compiling such footage since the early 1980s. I still have most of the tapes and have been archiving them digitally before they degrade forever.

« Last Edit: 01/28/2018 11:07 PM by MATTBLAK »
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Offline webdan

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #6 on: 01/28/2018 11:30 PM »
Jaba, same here. It was first flight I had actually missed. While at work, suddenly one of the employees from the TV store next door runs in and exclaimed *something happened*. I was in disbelief when I saw the multiple TV sets playing endless replays.

And Jim, thank you for your story. No other words here.

Offline Lar

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #7 on: 01/28/2018 11:35 PM »
I watched every shuttle launch, at first. But work got in the way, and it got to be so routine and safe seeming... and I was actually playing bridge with my IBM colleagues at lunchtime when the news came over the PA. Heartbroken.
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Offline MATTBLAK

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #8 on: 01/28/2018 11:58 PM »
Yes, thank you Jim for kicking this thread off. And with the 15th anniversary of Columbia coming up; it's sobering stuff.
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Offline scdavis

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #9 on: 01/29/2018 12:16 AM »
I feel honored to hear stories from you who were there and involved at the time.

As for me, I was in fourth grade watching the launch on a classroom television along with probably most American school children. We had spent weeks learning about Christa McAuliffe as part of a unit on space tied in with the STS launch. I don't have words to describe the experience ... still brings tears to my eyes remembering.

Offline brihath

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #10 on: 01/29/2018 12:32 AM »
I remember being at home as I had a day off from work and was wallpapering our dining room.  I kept on checking the TV as the launch had been delayed.  I remember checking the TV and saw Dan Rather discussing what had just happened to Challenger, and the replay showed the vehicle disintegrating with the SRB's going in separate directions.  I was crushed.  I had been a space flight enthusiast and saw the launches of Shepard, Grissom and Glenn and followed every flight since those early days.  I took the time to collect my thoughts and wrote an editorial letter that was published in two local newspapers.  We were in a different time then as you can see from the examples I cited in my letter.  Even today, I always remind my friends that space is hard.

Offline JAFO

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #11 on: 01/29/2018 04:57 AM »
I was managing a K-B toy store. Forgot there was a launch, my roommate had the replay on CNN in the living room when I walked by on the way to work. I walked in, told my crew to get every Shuttle toy we had and put it up front. They thought I was nuts, but when the gates opened and the mommas and crying kids walked in... I waited until we sold out, then went home early after stopping and picking up a bottle of cheap tequila.


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Offline floron

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #12 on: 01/29/2018 05:11 AM »
I was 10 and had just got back from school when my dad rang from work and told me. I still remember that the first thing I said was "Was anyone hurt?"

I think the Second World War Pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr. put it the best:

I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.


Offline pippin

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Me and 51-L
« Reply #13 on: 01/29/2018 10:05 AM »
Coincidence...
I remember the day very well (one of my first where-were-you-when-they-shot-Kennedy moments).
I was a teenager at the time and on that day we bought my first own home computer. When we picked it up, the seller told us “have you heard it, the Space Shuttle just exploded on the launch pad” (no live NASA TV back then over here in Germany and he also just heard it on the radio).
The computer came with a joystick called “Challenger” (seriously) and I just thought “maybe we should not have played around with that red button”. I still have that thing in my parents’ attic.

We returned home and by then it was all over TV, actually the most comprehensive spaceflight coverage we’ve had by then for a long time, sadly.

I had already been quite a bit of a space flight enthusiast by then, old family business since my father had already worked in the business since his early career (he worked on the first European launcher project, “Europa/ELDO”) so this really hit me at the time, much more than the general public over here or indeed most of my friends although we came from a bit of an aerospace community, the company my father worked for and which did aerospace electronics was by far the biggest employer in that small southern German town and in fact at least half of the population there had moved to the place to work in this business.
« Last Edit: 01/29/2018 10:16 AM by pippin »

Online mike robel

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #14 on: 01/29/2018 11:26 AM »
I was a tank company commander in the 1st Infantry Division (Forward) in Germany.  I had just finished with an Article 15 when one of my tank commander's burst in on me and the 1st Sergeant and said "Sir, the Space Shuttle just exploded!"

Your kidding, said I.  NO, come look.  It was all over Armed Forces Network Television.  I finished up at the office and went home where I stayed up all night and watched TV going over and over the thing.  One must understand, I grew up on Merritt Island and my dad had worked on Apollo and Shuttle, so I had a small connection to the space program.

But after that event, the day to day requirements of command pushed it to the side.  Although every time I see something about Challenger, I remember SSG Corwin rushing into my office.

Online Archibald

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #15 on: 01/29/2018 02:08 PM »
As of January 1986 I was only 3 and half years old so I can't remember that day.

But I come to grasp that horror later, circa 1988, aged 6. If you were a young techno-geek back then, already interested in advanced technologies, there was no way to avoid the doom of nuclear power (Chernobyl) and the doom of spaceflight (Challenger) even more since the two events happens barely three months appart and somewhat marked the end of some innocence and the end of an era - "Apollo" "electricty too cheap to meter"

First in my first spaceflight book (still have it). It was only words, some lines. Ok.  Later in a magazine where an entire page was filled with the coloured plume from the explosion, with the SRBs flying in the corners. It took me a while to figure the why and how of that picture - that the shuttle ascent, the position of the tracking cameras, made for such bizarre angle. For a six years old, those things were uncomprehensible.

This peculiar magazine. My elder sister, a  brilliant mind five years older than me, was reading it. Evidently I did the same and wham, the challenger picture exploded in my face.
https://pmcdn.priceminister.com/photo/217384030.jpg

It was just like the Chernobyl red and white chimney: at the time I couldn't figure why on earth had they it painted it red and white. (later: so that aircrafts didn't flew into it in fog). What was worse, in France and elsewhere a lot of high pylons and chimneys were and still are painted red and white, and the damn things remembered myself of chernobyl again and again.
It looked like a giant candy cane and at the bottom of that, was the dark - grey mess of the eviscerated nuclear reactor. It haunted my nightmares for years. I'm glad they recently demolished the thing and sealed the disaster into a new sarcophagus.

Chernobyl red-and-white chimney and Challenger white-yellow-brown coloured explosion cloud really burned my mind and scared myself to death.

Another lasting memory was Punky Brewster and the Buzz Aldrin episode, "Accidents happen".
This one.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0680568/
The imdb entry is, by itself, heartbreaking.
Another strange way of being impacted by some horrific accident in the pre-internet days.
Dear God.
It was probably in the early 90's, my elder sisters were watching that sweet, funny show in syndication on M6 TV channel and all of sudden, wham, the challenger tragedy. Punky's teacher dead aboard a space shuttle. WTH. only much later did I found the episode, through IMDB, and that Buzz Aldrin was part of it.

I think that peculiar show really catched the absolute horror, cruelty, and absurdness that was the Challenger disaster for all those high school kids.

That is "why did the space shuttle with my teacher blew up ? Why did it happened this day, this launch, which was to be a happy time ? why did it ended in tragedy ?"

I'm not saying that had the shuttle blown another day, another crew, no one would have cared. I'm not that kind of person.
But the death of Christa McAuliffe made it far more a trauma, as far as PR goes. It still blow my mind even today, the sheer cruelty of what happened to all those poor kids.
« Last Edit: 01/29/2018 02:56 PM by Archibald »
... that ackward moment when you realize that Jeff Bezos personal fortune is far above NASA annual budget... 115 billion to 18 billion...

Offline fthomassy

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #16 on: 01/29/2018 05:39 PM »
Thanks for this thread Jim and thanks to everyone for sharing your perspective.

Like most of us here the space program shaped my childhood and influenced my career choices. I was a junior studying Aerospace Engineering at Auburn University at the time. I was on my way to class when I heard but don't recall if/how classes were disrupted. I do recall hours gathered around the TV at home and at my AFROTC detachment trying to glean every fine point of detail.

Several years later I left the USAF and joined the Aerojet team in the northeast corner of Mississippi doing non-linear FEA on ASRM cases and joints. ASRM was a post-Challenger program to upgrade from the troubled RSRM which was considered by some to be a patch-fix. Congress killed that project after >$2B spent (along with the Superconducting Supercollider, another $2B) and I became an Aerospace Refugee in the mid-1990s. I can't complain too much as I continue to enjoy a diverse engineering career.
gyatm . . . Fern

Offline MATTBLAK

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #17 on: 01/29/2018 09:36 PM »
The Punky Brewster episode that Archibald is talking about is on YouTube. Check it out.
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Offline tdemko

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #18 on: 01/29/2018 10:47 PM »
I was a geologist working on a drilling project in the wilderness of north-central Pennsylvania. It was hovering around -15 Fahrenheit and my bottle of HCl keep freezing solid, even in my jacket pocket, so I was getting in and out of the pickup truck to keep warm and thaw the acid. The truck was running and the radio was tuned to an AM news station (we alternated news with country music). There was some breaking news about a problem with the Challenger launch, but few details immediately. The job foreman then drove up and heard that the shuttle had actually been destroyed. We finished out the day and I drove the foreman home to a nearby town. He invited me in to watch the TV coverage, and I finally saw those iconic images of the vapor cloud, the crazed flight of the SRBs, and the terrible rain of debris, some splashing into the ocean.
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Offline toren

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Re: Me and 51-L
« Reply #19 on: 01/30/2018 05:35 AM »
I was a space nut since I was a kid, growing up on Mercury, Gemini and the tragedy and triumph of Apollo.  I was never a big fan of STS - the "committee design" was all too obvious to an engineer - but STS-5 was the only launch I've seen in person.  By 1986, I was deeply into a software startup and content to watch the launches on the evening news, rather than trying to find some live source.  So I was buried in code when my wife called and said "The Shuttle blew up".  The whole company - nerds every one of us - shut down as we crowded around the CEO's TV.

The iconic photo of the explosion is one of those moments frozen in time that I will never forget, just like the impact of the second plane on the WTC.  I can't hear "Go at throttle up" without cringing, or "High Flight' without getting misty (those were Reagan's closing words in his memorial address, for those who don't date back).
« Last Edit: 01/30/2018 05:37 AM by toren »

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