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Far From A Routine Flight

Think back, it seemed like a routine flight that cold January 28 twelve years ago when Space Shuttle Challenger lifted off with seven astronauts, including the first private citizen to fly aboard a space shuttle, school teacher Christa McAuliffe. So ordinary, was Challenger's launch, in fact, only CNN broadcast the event live. Americans had grown used to space shuttle launches -- the rocket took off, orbited the earth and landed safely.

This was not the case for Challenger.

"Liftoff of the 25th space shuttle mission," says the announcer. "It has cleared the tower."

Cameras show Challenger climbing smoothly and rolling over on its back. "Houston, this is Challenger. Roll program," Flight Commander Dick Scobee reports by radio eight seconds after blastoff.

Mission Control reassuringly replies: "Roger roll, Challenger."

Challenger is now heading downrange. The ship arches up through a crystalline blue sky and climbs over the Atlantic Ocean. Instruments in the cockpit show all systems operating normally and within guidelines.

Forty-five seconds into the flight, Mission Control calls for throttles to be increased.

"Roger, go at throttle up," Scobee calmly replies.

As Scobee acknowledged the throttle-up call from mission control, NASA tracking cameras switch to a close-up view of the shuttle. A strange, pinkish glow trails the rear of Challenger's external fuel tank. Then, suddenly and without warning, the shuttle is swallowed-up by a mushrooming fireball, a terribly beautiful maelstrom of flaming debris.

A sharp crackle of static comes over the air-to-ground audio circuit. From the ground, observers at the press site do not realize what is happening. The exhaust plume expands dramatically and an impression of debris flies through the air. First one, and then two, solid rocket boosters streak away from the fireball, apparently intact, apparently still firing at full power.

A sense of numb disbelief settles over the Kennedy Space Center. Thick contrails of white smoke arc away from the explosion, falling toward the Atlantic Ocean. Challenger is nowhere to be seen. It has exploded in mid-air, taking the lives of all seven crew members.

The mission seemed vexed from the start. Problems with Space Shuttle Columbia's flight had pushed back Challenger's launch by 18 months. Weather problems around the world forced further delays, including aborting launch only nine hours from scheduled lift-off.

Cold weather at the Kennedy Space caused NASA engineers and the makers of Challenger's O-Rings -- sensitive rubber seas used to maintain internal pressure and prevent hot gas or flame from escaping in the joints between fuel segments -- to question the safety of the launch. Morton Thiokol engineers unanimously recommended a launch postponement because they feared the O-rings might not seat properly because of the cold weather.

Challenger's launch proceeded despite the concerns. The results were disastrous. To read CBS News Space Consultant William Harwood's detailed account of the launch, including extensive transcripts, see INSERT URL!!!!!!!!!! [To read a complete account of the Challenger disaster, click here [Srh91a4.pdf]


Produced by Joshua Platt. Graphic production by Adam S. Gaynor

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