Rhea Seddon was in the first group of female astronauts selected by NASA in 1978, and had already flown once on the shuttle at the time of the Challenger accident. As one half of a rare astronaut couple (her husband Hoot Gibson had just returned from space 10 days earlier), Seddon’s reaction, like that of other members of NASA’s flying corps, was personal as well as professional. On the morning of the launch, she was at a meeting at an offsite location near the Johnson Space Center in Houston, preparing for her next flight. She tells the story in her new book, Go For Orbit.
As launch time drew near, it was such a clear day in Florida that I commented that we’d be able to see the booster separation two minutes into the flight on the Cape’s long-range cameras. Since it looked like the launch was going to go at 10:38 Houston time, we delayed the start of our meeting to watch. Everything looked routine that day. No clouds, no high winds, no stuck hatches, no equipment failures to slow things down—just the bone-chilling cold.
The main engines started up, the boosters lit, and the Public Affairs Officer announced joyfully, “We have lift-off, lift-off of the space shuttle Challenger and America’s Teacher in Space!”
You couldn’t see the puff of black smoke come out of one of the joints in the right booster. You couldn’t see the tongue of flame as the propellant ate through the booster casing and then the strut that held the booster to the fuel tank. You couldn’t see what was about to happen. The television was on a tight shot of the vehicle when it blew up.
“See,” I said, “…there’s booster separation.”
“No,” said Drew Gaffney, our other payload specialist, checking his watch, “it’s too early.”
A sickening feeling of incredulity swept over me as the camera panned back to show a big cloud of smoke with tentacle-like streamers arching downward. But something was still burning in the distance, still flying out of the cloud. Surely it was the shuttle, having for some reason popped off the boosters early. It took a few minutes to sink in that there was no Challenger anymore. The camera showed the surface of the ocean under the explosion. Large chunks of material started to hit the water, sending up huge sprays of water. At that point I knew with certainty that they were gone.
With tears welling up in my eyes, a lump gathering in my chest, I knew I had to get back to the office, maybe to find that the crew had survived somehow. I stumbled out of the meeting and dashed to my car before near hysteria overcame me. As I sobbed shamelessly on the five-minute drive back to the space center, I repeated over and over a phrase that later I’d feel great guilt about: “Thank God it isn’t Hoot! Thank God it isn’t Hoot!” It had come so close to his last flight, which had almost launched on a frigid day like this one.
Screeching to a halt outside our office building, I bolted out of the car in time to be met by Hoot coming out the front door. He had been trying to track me down. I looked into his eyes searching for an answer. He shook his head, his blue eyes filling with tears.
“What happened? What happened?” I asked.
“It blew up—that’s all we know now—it blew up.”
“All of them gone?”
I stood sobbing in his arms outside Building 4 on a warm sunny day in Houston that January 28.
Tourists walked by the building staring at this strange vignette. There were no signs on us identifying us as astronauts. The tragedy had happened such a short time ago that people wandering around the center didn’t know about it yet. Launches had become so routine that the world didn’t stop to watch them anymore.
Scobee—Mike—Oh, Ellison!—J.R.—Ron—and poor Greg and Christa.
I couldn’t believe they were gone. It was the first time in my life that a close friend had died and now so many at once. My colleagues from the military had dealt with this before, with airplane crashes and the reality of war, but in my safe little cocoon of life, friends didn’t vanish. No one had ever thought that a whole shuttle would blow up. So deep was our denial that there weren’t even any plans for dealing with such an occurrence.
After the initial shock and disbelief, no one knew what we should do. I had learned from Terry McGuire, the psychologist who interviewed us at selection, that in times of stress, workaholics are comforted by having work to do, and we were an office of workaholics. Bereft, we walked up the stairs to our third floor office suite to find Bob Overmeyer giving orders in the hallway like the senior Marine officer he was.
Were all the crew’s children with their parents at the Cape? God forbid that one or more were in their school classroom without someone to take care of them. A call went out to aircraft ops to make sure there were T-38s available to take astronauts to the Cape to help. Every astronaut was tracked down to make sure they knew what had happened, with orders to get them back to JSC. The wagons were circled.
Hastily a meeting was convened to solicit volunteers for tasks we knew had to be done, and to tell everyone else to stand by for others. We were reminded not to talk to the press until we knew what had happened. We’d later learn that there was chaos at the crew quarters at the Cape as crew relatives gathered to deal with what had happened. The families were asked to stay at the Cape until Vice President George H.W. Bush arrived to speak to them—and it was late in the afternoon when his plane landed. He had brought Senators John Glenn and Jake Garn with him, who knew what it was like to venture into space. In a story told later, one of the most courageous of the day, we heard that June Scobee, the Challenger commander’s wife representing all the families, asked the Vice President not to stop space exploration because of Challenger’s loss. She was a remarkably strong woman, and how incredible that she could focus outward and forward on such a day of loss.
It was after our office meeting that it dawned on me that my own three-and-a-half-year-old child was at preschool, where they often watched shuttle launches. I called Chris LaChance, the headmistress (her own husband was a helicopter pilot) to make sure Paul was all right. She told me that by some fluke, they’d forgotten to turn on the television that morning. The staff had decided not to tell the children—many of whom had parents working for NASA, a few were astronauts’ children—about the accident. They would leave it up to each family to explain it in their own way.
As soon as I could get away from the office, I headed for Monarch Montessori School, which was out the back gate of the Center. Paul’s eyes were wide with surprise that mommy had come to pick him up so early—right after lunch. He may have been suspicious at my red eyes and sad face and at the extra big hug he got when he ran to greet me.
He was quiet as we started our ride home. Glancing first at me and then out the window, he fidgeted with his lunchbox. He was waiting for me to start the conversation. “Paul, I have to tell you something important—and sad,” I began.
“Is Daddy okay?” was his worried response.
“Yes, he’s okay, but the space shuttle Challenger blew up this morning right after launch.”
He pondered that for a minute. “Blew up? What happened to the people?” he wanted to know. How could I explain this to a child whose parents had been on shuttle flights…and who might well be on them in the future? There had never been the grief and finality of death in Paul’s young life. How should I put it so he’d understand?
“God took them all to heaven,” was the best I could come up with. And then Paul gave me the only brief smile I’d had since 10:38 this morning.
“Why did She do that?”
Why did my little boy think God was a “she?” This was not the time to go into that; I tucked it away in my heart for a happier moment.
“Well, I don’t think we know why. It just happened, and we are all very sad because they were our friends, and we’ll miss them.” I reminded him that Ron McNair, whose son Reggie was in Paul’s preschool class, had been on the flight. That put a human face on an otherwise rather abstract event.
“You mean Reggie’s daddy has gone to heaven and won’t be back?”
“Yes,” I said.
I knew he was struggling to understand what this all meant. He kept looking at me as tears dribbled down my cheeks. I realized what his main concern was when he asked, “When will you not be sad anymore?” How do you answer a child’s innocent question like that? I didn’t know how long it would be before I wasn’t sad anymore.
Excerpted from Go For Orbit, by Rhea Seddon, Your Space Press, 2015. The book is available for purchase here.