Reporters remember Challenger coverage


Media representatives converge on memorial service for Challenger's crew at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Jan. 31, 1986. Credit: NASA
Media representatives converge on memorial service for Challenger’s crew at the Johnson Space Center in Houston on Jan. 31, 1986. Credit: NASA

Veteran CBS News correspondent Bruce Hall was not on the air when the shuttle Challenger blasted off 30 years ago Thursday. It was, after all, the 25th shuttle flight, the first of 16 planned for 1986, and news agencies were backing off expensive, remote coverage of what increasingly appeared to be a routine event.

Instead, Hall decided to step outside the network’s bureau at the Kennedy Space Center press site, 3.4 miles from the launch pad, to take in Challenger’s liftoff the old-fashioned way, with his own eyes, and to watch the reaction of school teacher Christa McAuliffe’s parents, who opted to witness the launch from a nearby parking lot.

Earlier that morning, McAuliffe, the personable winner of a nationwide competition to become the first teacher — and “private citizen” — to fly in space was presented with a shiny red apple by launch pad technicians when she and her crewmates strapped in.

I was just 100 feet or so from Hall, seated in United Press International’s 60-foot-long office trailer, nervously chain smoking as I polished up a story that would go out to UPI’s clients the moment Challenger began moving. Given Challenger’s morning launch time, I was writing for afternoon, or PM, newspapers, the “breaking news” cycle that normally would have been handled by Al Rossiter Jr., UPI’s veteran science editor.

But Rossiter and other big-league science writers had opted to skip Challenger’s launch in favor of the Voyager 2 probe’s flyby of Uranus four days earlier. That Tuesday morning, they were still in Pasadena, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for a final wrap-up news briefing on the Uranus encounter.

UPI sent another writer down to handle the morning newspaper, or AM, cycle stories, along with an editor, a feature writer based in Orlando and a half-dozen photographers. Rob Navias, UPI Radio’s veteran space reporter, was seated behind me in a glassed-in studio. The Associated Press was similarly staffed with veteran space reporter Howard Benedict, a second writer, radio reporters, AP photographers and stringers.

Local television stations were on hand for launch as always, along with New Hampshire stations covering McAuliffe’s flight. While opting not to cover Challenger’s launch live, CBS News was on site, Hall said, for pre- and post-launch stories, providing a live feed to WMUR-TV, the network’s affiliate in Manchester, N.H.

CNN was the only cable television network on hand. Miami-based correspondent John Zarrella and a photographer were at the press site, but CNN did not have an available satellite truck and planned to anchor the network’s live broadcast from Atlanta using NASA’s video feed.

Zarrella expected to shoot a standup and background, or b-roll, video before and after launch and drive the tape over to an uplink facility operated by Walt Disney World near Orlando.

Barbara Morgan and Christa McAuliffe, the backup and prime crew members for NASA's "Teacher in Space" program, view a shuttle launch in October 1985 from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Credit: NASA
Barbara Morgan and Christa McAuliffe, the backup and prime crew members for NASA’s “Teacher in Space” program, view a shuttle launch in October 1985 from the Kennedy Space Center press site. Credit: NASA

A cold front had swept across central Florida the night before, dropping temperatures into the teens before slowly creeping back above freezing as the morning wore on. Ice at the launch pad was a major concern, interrupting the countdown for additional inspections and delaying liftoff to later in the morning.

The forbidding weather, earlier delays and the Voyager flyby contributed to a lower-than-usual media turnout. Only a few hundred media credentials were requested, and fewer than that actually showed up.

“The general thought among most of us was they weren’t going to launch that day because of the weather,” Hall recalled. “You had (reporters) who were out in California, but you also had many who just didn’t come down because it had been postponed before, and all the predictions said it was not going today. Everybody was barebones that day.”

For Zarrella, the cold wave meant extra duty. He had to file an overnight piece on how the weather might affect Florida’s orange groves, drive the tape to Orlando and then hustle back to the space center before launch.

“We ran back to the Cape,” he said. “We had a little dinky trailer sitting there at the press mound with a hole in the floor at the door. We ended up hanging out in that trailer trying to stay warm like everyone else was because it was so cold.”

And it was, in fact, cold. I came in just after midnight to monitor the shuttle’s fueling. The baseboard heaters in the UPI trailer were cranked up all the way, but I still wore a heavy coat and hat as I monitored the countdown. By Florida standards, it was brutal.

None of us knew that O-ring seals in the joints between the fuel segments making up Challenger’s two solid-propellant boosters also were affected by the cold, losing their resiliency and ability to respond to ignition pressures that tended to push open the joints where fuel segments were bolted together.

And none of us knew about an intense debate the night before when engineers with Morton Thiokol, builder of the huge rockets, recommended a launch delay because of concern about the effects of cold weather on the critical O-ring seals. They knew, as most reporters did not, that a seal failure could result in a catastrophic “burn through.”

As we would learn later, Thiokol managers, under intense pressure from their NASA counterparts, eventually overruled the engineers and told NASA the company supported pressing ahead with launch.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

And so, still shivering and trying to keep my hands warm enough to type, I awaited liftoff, chatting on the phone with editor Bill Trott in Washington who would push the “send” button on my story as soon as Challenger’s boosters ignited.

And finally, to the surprise of many, they did. The countdown resumed at the T-minus nine-minute mark, pilot Mike Smith activated Challenger’s hydraulic power system, the shuttle’s three hydrogen-fueled main engines roared to life and at 11:38 a.m., commands were sent to ignite the huge boosters and fire the explosive bolts holding the 4.5-million-pound spacecraft to the pad.

Instantly, Challenger began climbing away atop a brilliant plume of 5,000-degree exhaust, rolling about it’s vertical axis and arcing away to the east.

“Let it go,” I told Trott well before the crackling roar of the boosters reached the press site, shaking the UPI trailer like a minor earthquake. With my story on its way, I relaxed slightly, keeping an ear on NASA’s commentary and both eyes on the shuttle, disappearing from view out my front window.

Then, 73 seconds after liftoff, the unthinkable happened.

At an altitude of 46,000 feet, traveling at just under twice the speed of sound, Challenger was engulfed in a roiling cloud of fiery vapor, disappearing from view as its external fuel tank, loaded with liquid oxygen and explosive hydrogen propellants, broke apart in a high-altitude conflagration.

“Wait a minute… something’s happened!” I urgently told Trott, my eyes glued on the scene unfolding outside my window. Had I been watching NASA television, I would have seen the spacecraft break up, consumed in a fireball. But looking out the window, with Challenger out of sight behind its exhaust plume, I didn’t immediately realize what had happened.

But I knew it was very, very bad. “They’re in trouble,” I remember telling Trott. “Let me dictate something.”

Debris could be seen arcing away from the fireball as Challenger’s two boosters emerged, suddenly flying on their own bereft of guidance, corkscrewing aimlessly through the sky.

“Flight controllers here are looking very carefully at the situation,” said NASA mission control commentator Steve Nesbitt. “Obviously a major malfunction.” Seconds later, he added: “We have no downlink.”

My initial dictated newspaper lead went something like this: “The space shuttle Challenger apparently exploded about two minutes after launch today and veered wildly out of control. The fate of the crew was not known.”

Navias, on the air live with UPI Radio, was watching the NASA television feed. His chilling commentary captured the unreality of the moment:

“Wait a moment,” he said, as the shuttle was engulfed, his voice indicating surprise and uncertainty. “I think there’s been an explosion… Is that possible?” A moment later, he echoed the fears of many, saying “I don’t see how anyone could have survived such a blast.”

Zarrella was watching from a field in front of the press site grandstand near NASA’s large countdown clock.

“We were all standing there and we saw the cloud engulf the vehicle, the huge cloud of smoke,” he said. “We were all standing there kind of looking at each other and looking up and scratching our heads and trying to figure out what had happened.”

Many reporters assumed, or at least hoped, that Challenger would emerge from the fireball to attempt an emergency return-to-launch-site abort, or RTLS. Zarrella ran over to his photographer, who was looking through the viewfinder of his camera.

“He’s got it tight, his shot is one of those great shots we had at CNN — tragic-great shots — and I said to Steve, what the hell happened? And he looks away from his eyepiece and without taking a beat, he said “the (expletive) thing blew up!”

As the wreckage plunged back to impact in the Atlantic Ocean, including the crew module carrying the seven astronauts, the news media at Kennedy rushed into the public affairs building in a futile search for information.

“There’s just no way to really describe it except to say it was just total chaos, with reporters screaming at NASA, PIOs screaming back at the reporters,” Zarrella said. “Nothing was coming out of that, so I ran to our trailer I picked up the phone and I called into CNN. They put me on the air with Tom Mintier and they asked me to describe what we had seen.”

At the CBS bureau, the network took over the affiliate feed and began an hours-long live broadcast with Hall at Kennedy and anchorman Dan Rather in New York.

“We did not know what happened,” Hall reflected. “We knew there was an explosion, we knew that it had broken apart. In reality, I think the whole thing just disintegrated. But we were assuming an explosion at that time. We had very little information. We got absolutely no information from NASA. … None of us knew any factual information other than what we could see. It was a very difficult afternoon.”

As for McAuliffe’s parents: “You could see just tremendous joy in their faces (at launch),” Hall said. “Then, when the explosion happened, I think I was like many of the veterans there, we knew immediately that this was a catastrophe. Christa McAuliffe’s parents did not know that. They thought there was a problem, but they did not have any idea at all of what had happened.”

Neither did anyone else.

NASA had a pre-approved plan for dealing with a disaster, covering everything from setting up an investigation board to making information available to the media. But in the immediate aftermath, NASA management opted to ignore those plans, instead imposing a strict “no comment” policy, refusing to answer even basic questions about the disaster pending the completion of an official investigation.

On Jan. 30, the NASA accident review board convened and decided to block release of any information about the crew. The Coast Guard agreed to “control data regarding personnel remains and personal effects,” according to NASA’s internal history of the investigation.

From the media’s perspective, it went downhill from there.

During a now-infamous briefing on Feb. 1 when NASA unveiled the first tracking camera footage showing an indisputable jet of flame spewing from a joint between two fuel segments in Challenger’s right-side booster, the briefer was not allowed to use the words “fire” or “flame.” Instead, he repeatedly called it an “anomalous plume.”

But the next day, longtime NBC space correspondent Jay Barbree, quoting unnamed sources, scored a major scoop, reporting that tracking camera footage showed a rupture, or burn through, at or near a joint connecting two fuel segments in Challenger’s right-side booster.

NASA, of course, would not immediately confirm the report and the agency’s refusal to provide basic information about the shuttle or the fate of its crew created increasing antagonism between the media, NASA’s public affairs officers and agency officials.

Reporters began ambushing NASA managers, appearing on doorsteps after dark and camping out in a park in Port Canaveral to monitor the coming and going of salvage ships, on guard for any behavior that might indicate the presence of crew remains. UPI, AP, CBS News and other agencies bought high-power radio gear to eavesdrop on off-shore salvage operations.

On March 7, salvage divers confirmed the location of Challenger shattered crew module, resting in 100 feet of water 17 miles off shore.

“Local security measures are being taken to assure that the recovery operations can take place in a safe and orderly manner,” NASA said in a carefully worded statement. “In deference to family wishes, NASA will not make further comment until recovery operations and identifications are complete.”

But by monitoring radio traffic, reporters knew when remains were brought ashore. In one telling exchange, the captain of the lead recovery ship, the USS Preserver, refused instructions to bring crew remains back to port in secrecy and in the dead of night.

“I consider that most inappropriate for these conditions, I’d like to have you verify with our chain of command,” the captain angrily called to shore.

The shore control operator said he would check the order, but “on that particular one, that apparently is their call, over.”

“This is Preserver,” the captain replied after a pause. “Aboard Preserver, it’s my call.” When Preserver docked later that night, its running lights were on and two military ambulances met the ship.

“That was the breakthrough, in my mind, in what we were able to cover,” Hall said. “When we couldn’t get anything from NASA, we went out and bought receivers, (and) we all went to Jetty Park, and we would listen to those receivers, and we really found out a lot about the debris recovery. The reason we were there was twofold. One, was to get pictures of the debris and two, to see if they’d recovered the bodies of the astronauts.”

In part, NASA’s decision to withhold details in the wake of Challenger was well-intended, borne of a desire to shield the astronauts’ families from the intrusive glare of the media and an equally strong desire to avoid speculation until all the facts were known. And intentional or not, the policy also shielded managers from scrutiny and public accountability, at least in the short term.

But despite NASA’s efforts at obfuscation, the presidential commission investigating the disaster slowly but surely uncovered a long history of problems with the O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid-fuel boosters, management miscues and compartmentalized communications that all contributed to the failure.

Veteran space reporters generally agree NASA’s media policy was a disaster for the space agency, deeply tarnishing the image of a government agency lauded for its open, can-do spirit and forever ending reporters’ willingness to simply take NASA’s word for something, a lack of trust that lingers to this day.

“I think they did a lot of damage to themselves and the agency with the way they handled the entire Challenger event,” Hall said. “They were seen as almost like a god-like agency prior to this, and everybody came down on them, whether it was congressmen, reporters, or others. We lost trust in NASA after Challenger.”

Could NASA have pulled off such a policy in the presence of social media?

“It would be completely different if it happened now,” Hall said. “There would be people and staff broadcasting and writing 24 hours a day. There would be people there all the time, there would be video from helicopters, which could get out to where that crash site was, if they couldn’t get out there they would be using drones.

“You would have video from all kinds of places. And I think now, with so many more resources in the 24-hour news cycle, there would be people somewhere that would leak stuff that did not leak it years ago because they felt admiration for NASA, they wanted to stick with them all the way, and they didn’t want to be the one who would speak out.”

Jeremy Caplan, a professor at the City University of New York’s graduate school of journalism, said social media would have had a major impact on the Challenger investigation and the public’s knowledge of what happened.

“The number-one change would be we’d have a huge array of voices weighing in on this from scientists, former NASA officials, former astronauts, people who have expertise in various areas of spaceflight, and we’d get a much broader sense of what was going on and what might have happened, why it might have happened and what should be done about it,” he said.

People directly involved in the mishap would chime in via their Facebook pages or other platforms, including engineers, technicians and possibly even family members.

“The third thing,” Caplan said, “I think there would be more accountability. Officials really wouldn’t be able to be silent on this, and they wouldn’t be able to kind of delay comment for as long as they were able to. I think they would have been pressured into responding just because the weight of public inquiry would have been so strong.”

Jesse Holcomb, associate director of research at the Pew Research Center, said social media would have “amplified” the thoughts of many who otherwise would have had no avenue.

“With the proliferation of platforms beyond Facebook and Twitter, it does create more opportunities, I suppose, for information to leak out, intentionally or otherwise,” he said.

“It’s another situation where social media amplifies some of the kinds of phenomena you would have seen prior to a social media age. Humans will be humans, on social media or not. But it does have that kind of amplification effect across the board.”

On April 15, salvage crews finally recovered a 10-foot by 20-foot piece of rocket casing that included part of a burned out “hole” where the deadly rupture had occurred, proof that the burn-through happened at the aft field joint as NASA engineers suspected.

On April 18, NASA completed its search for crew remains and on April 29, a transport jet flew all seven to a military mortuary at Dover Air Force Base for final treatment according to family wishes.

NASA redesigned the booster joints in the wake of the disaster, implemented new oversight measures, streamlined communications and made myriad other changes to improve flight safety and reliability. Shuttle flights resumed in 1988. I quit smoking shortly thereafter.

Another tragedy would rock the agency in 2003 when the shuttle Columbia burned up during re-entry, but the agency’s response to that disaster was very different from the Challenger experience. The agency released information as it was obtained, held numerous news briefings and generally kept the media and the public informed.

“I think Columbia proved they learned their lesson,” Hall said. “That was handled so much differently and so much more effectively in providing the information and providing all of the details. Now, are there things that may (have) happened that we still don’t know about? Probably. But with Challenger, it was zero information.

“They learned their lesson, but they paid a huge price for it.”