January 28th, 2011
07:39 AM ET

Zarrella on 25 years ago: 'We realized that something was really wrong'

Editor's note: John Zarrella was the CNN network correspondent on site when the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster occurred. He recalls that day:

When I went to the Kennedy Space Center on January 28, 1986, to cover the launch of the space shuttle Challenger, I was expecting it to be routine, like the launches I had covered in the past. The only thing different this time was the excitement that surrounded the first teacher-turned-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.

It was brutally cold, and the weather caused the launch to slip several times during the morning. Just before launch, I walked down to the countdown clock, as was tradition among the journalists, and waited for liftoff. I remember that typical winter clear-blue sky as Challenger took off.

A little more than a minute into the launch, from where I was standing, you could see a cloud of smoke and then what looked like fireworks shooting out from the cloud.

All of us standing there had no idea what it meant. We just looked at each other with puzzled faces as we waited for the orbiter to appear from behind the cloud. After a few seconds, we realized that something was really wrong.

That is when I ran about 30 yards to where my photographer, Steve Sonnenblick, was filming. I knew he had a closer view through the lens of his camera. In a panic, I said to him, "What happened?" He replied, "The (expletive) thing exploded." At that point I just thought, "Oh my God."

I immediately ran to the NASA newsroom. When I walked through the door, it was total chaos. Reporters were screaming at the NASA public affairs officers, demanding that they be taken out to the space shuttle landing strip.

A lot of people thought if the shuttle had survived, the astronauts might try an RTLS (return to launch site) abort. The NASA folks were screaming back that no one was going anywhere until they had a better understanding of what had happened.

At times you really felt like fistfights were going to break out. No one ended up going out to the landing strip because mission control in Houston quickly reported that the vehicle had exploded.

That was the beginning of monthslong coverage of what was at the time the worst disaster in NASA history. I will never forget that image. When I close my eyes, I can see what I once thought looked like fireworks: the Challenger and its crew gone in 73 seconds. The nightmares I had of space shuttles exploding finally ended, but it took several years.

Visit CNN.com's complete coverage: Remembering Challenger

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Filed under: Shuttle • Space
soundoff (131 Responses)
  1. Chris

    I will never forget that day. I had nightmares about it as well. The whole country mourned for months it seemed.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:04 am | Report abuse |
  2. banasy

    OMG, that's been 25 years already?

    One of the saddest events in our Nation's history...I was at work and we were all in our offices watching, and we literally all started wailing and crying. Yes, even the men. We closed the office. We were all just that upset.

    Even though 25 years have passed, I'll bet anyone who witnessed that will always remember that day, and the courage of our astronauts, (living and passed) for stepping into the unknown, good and bad. RIP.

    Their families should know that, imo, they are heros and epitomize why little boys and girls STILL want to grow up to be astronauts.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:07 am | Report abuse |
    • stwebb

      Amazing how time flies like that quarter century did!

      It even amazes me that 9-11 happened nearly a decade ago!

      There's talk of returning to the Moon and on to Mars within the next two decades.

      There are risks involved, but we humans have a need to know about our universe.

      I pray that we leave the pettiness of racial hatred here on earth, and not take it with us to new frontiers.

      God bless our Astronauts!

      January 28, 2011 at 8:35 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Colin H

    I was in the 11th grade, home from school that day. Couldn't believe it. Worse, the sick jokes invented seemingly instantly.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      @Colin – I can almost trace the devolution of our society to the reactions after that. In Florida we have a specialty plate of the Challenger – some a* hole ordered it with the specialty lettering KA BOOM. It was issued because some pencil pusher missed the "joke" – eventually he had to return the plate and was not allowed to keep it. It's appalling.

      January 28, 2011 at 8:54 am | Report abuse |
    • jules

      Colin, I must be about your age, and I was at school that day. I'll never forget going into the library to watch the news coverage, and getting really angry at the little jerks that were already laughing about it–not an hour after it had happened.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:34 pm | Report abuse |
    • Erik

      I understand your point, but the jokes didn't bother me that much. Granted, some of the jokes may have been too soon, and others may have been distasteful. Having said that, humor is one of the things people use to help us deal with a tragic situation. We need humor.

      January 29, 2011 at 1:06 am | Report abuse |
  4. Mike

    I was in Kindergarten on January 28, 1986. I still vividly remember watching with the rest of my class, the launch of the Challenger and it's newest teacher crew member on our small classroom television set. Excitement quickly turned to tears as we realized what had happened. As I've grown up, and have comprehended the tragedy better, I realize the only disservice we can make to those who passed that day is to not continue sending men and women to study the greatest beyond in order to push the boundaries of human understanding of our universe.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:15 am | Report abuse |
    • Graced

      Very well said. Unfortunately Mr. Obama doesn't read this forum, so we'll be doing a disservice to the astronauts very soon. RIP Challenger crew, and RIP space program.

      January 28, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • David M

      ? Obama increased NASA's budget.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Loren

      And Bush cancelled the Shuttle program. But don't let a few facts get in the way of a good mad on.

      Sail on, astronauts of Challenger, Columbia, and Apollo 1.

      January 28, 2011 at 11:14 am | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      Man you're young...

      January 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ruskinrules


      It never fails that the first nut to chime in uses this as an opportunity (and completely irrelevant I might add) to bash Obama. I may not have been Shrub's biggest fan, but I have enough sense to not desperately tie a national tragedy to my personal political beliefs. And even though Reagan's speechwriter wrote the words for him that included the line, "...slipped the surly bonds of earth" from pilot John Gillespie Magee's poem "High Flight", I have no doubt that Reagan truly felt genuine sorrow for the astronauts.

      You're a prime example of what has gone wrong in this country.

      January 28, 2011 at 1:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • LC

      Mike, thank you for recognizing that the greatest tribute to the fallen astronauts is to carry on the mission which they so bravely and fully embraced. My uncle was a NASA computer engineer on that day. He called shortly after the disaster, crying that his friends were gone. Exploration has always been a dangerous business. We can try to reduce the risks that we know. But to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, "We don't know what we don't know". And there will likely always be a side lesson in our explorations.

      January 28, 2011 at 3:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • stwebb

      Graced, how do you know what President Obama reads and doesn't read? You sound like Sarah Palin...uninformed! Get back to your tea party!

      January 28, 2011 at 8:40 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Mike

    I remember watching this on TV in my sixth grade classroom and just being stunned when they announced that the shuttle had exploded. By far one of the most horrific things I remember from my youth.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:22 am | Report abuse |
  6. Steve

    NASA should have returned the remains to their families. Instead, the remains of the 7 astronauts are down an abandoned missle silo and backfilled with concrete at Kennedy Space Center.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Dion

      The remains WERE returned to the families for burial. You are such an IDIOT. Check your facts. The PARTS of the Challenger were placed in an abandoned silo, but NOT the people. NASA has more respect than that. IDIOT.

      January 28, 2011 at 8:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Ron

      I'm confused here, because from all that I've read the bodies were recovered after the cabin was recovered. The bodies were intact and strapped into their seats as the cabin area blew off of the booster rockets and travelled upwards another 2 or 3 miles before falling into the ocean. Are you saying that the astronauts weren't interned? Because 2 of them are buried in Arlington and the rest were buried by their familes.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:09 am | Report abuse |
    • Frankie

      @ Ron – Good Lord, the word is "interred," not "interned." You're thinking of Monica Lewinsky.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:21 am | Report abuse |
    • suuuup

      @Steve You're ignorant

      January 28, 2011 at 9:43 am | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      No steve. The remains of Challenger are in the silo. The human remains were returned to their families. Dick Scobee is buried in Arlington National Cemetery for example....

      January 28, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
    • J Stryder

      All human remains recovered where possible were returned to their families! The remains to refer to are those of the space shuttle Challenger debris, wreckage, stored in that silo!

      January 28, 2011 at 10:52 am | Report abuse |
    • alan

      WHAT A MORON!!!

      January 28, 2011 at 11:51 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Unbelievably WRONG!

      January 28, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ravensun

      Horse hockey.

      January 28, 2011 at 7:00 pm | Report abuse |
    • William

      That's the trouble with the Internet. Some moron can state a lie, and a certain percentage of people will believe it.

      January 28, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Report abuse |
  7. snacklefish

    My family and I were moving across country that day and had stopped to visit some family along the way – I was 13 at the tim. We ended up going up to the mountains in New Mexico and stopping at a diner for lunch. The place was eerily silent and the lone TV was showing a news channel talking about an accident. I remember my mom asking the waitress "What happened?" and she responded "The space shuttle blew up, honey..." I felt sick to my stomach the whole rest of the day and was almost in tears over it. Still hits me 25 years later.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:36 am | Report abuse |
    • Jen

      I was just a baby at the time but my mom has told me the story many times. We were also moving that day but my mom had been following the story like the rest of the country. She asked one of the movers how the launch went and that's when she found out that it had exploded. It hit home especially hard since we were from New Hampshire, not far from where the teacher was from. Such a tragedy.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  8. ChiefOBoB

    I was in 5th Grade – science class. We were called into another classroom to watch the launch life. I think around 100 of us kids saw it live. I don't think those of us that were old enough to watch it will ever forget it.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
  9. Joe Vignolo, Derry, NH

    The Challenger accident was an example of what happens when you involve politics in making technical decisions. There was scheduling pressure to launch the shuttle and the engineer's safety concerns about the solid rocket boosters were overruled. The investigation revealed that there were flaws in the management culture at NASA that led to the accident. For a while the situation was improved for the better, but unfortunately over time the same culture returned and the same thing happened again with Columbia.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:41 am | Report abuse |
    • Cindy

      I agree – every day the media had some new 'report' on how NASA didn't know how to launch a rocket. "What's taking them so long? Do we still need NASA? Is the space program finished?" EVERY DAY – I remember thinking, "they are going to rush this launch and something bad is going to happen."

      January 28, 2011 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      @Cindy- Sure you did.....

      January 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spaceman Spiff

      It was amazing. I followed the space program all my life, I was 33 at the time. I remember the media complaining about the constant delays in the shuttle launch. Editorials basically labeling NASA as incompetent because they let just about anything delay the launch. With the visibility of Christa MacAulliffe, NASA was even more pressured to launch. It was hoped that shuttle flights would be open to more "regular folks"...(John Glenn went back up. Walter Cronkite wanted to go.)
      What I thought was pathetic was, after the accident, the media screamed about NASA's incompetence. I don't remember the media taking responsibility for their pressure on NASA. I was also surprised at the small size of the solid booster o-rings. I worked with similar o-rings for years (built torpedoes...) and I remember how prone they could be to pinching, rolling, cutting etc. I thought the boosters would have a more substantial seal. Oh well.
      It's still a tragedy 25 years later. I hope we can honor them by renewing our commitment to the space program. But I don't see that happening.

      January 29, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  10. Mommy

    I remember watching this in elementary school with many of my classes. But strangely I don't remember the accident. So either the tv was turned off by then or the teachers made an excuse to protect 100+ kids sitting together from what really happened.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:45 am | Report abuse |
  11. Wendy

    My son was in fiirst grade and I remember his excitement that morning leaving for school because they were going to watch the launch in the auditorium. The minute I saw what happened, I grabbed my keys and went to the school to comfort him. I knew he would be so upset and he was. I ended up bringing him back home with me as did numerous other parents that had done the same as me. It was such a sad day....

    January 28, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  12. Kevin

    I will never forget that day for as long as I live. In 1986 I was a space program junkie, I knew just about everything you could know about the shuttle and how it worked. As I stood with my coworkers and watched Challenger launch, then explode, I knew deep in my gut we had just lost seven wonderful people. It was a wakeup call to NASA and the rest of us that going into space was far from routine, it's a shame we had to lose those seven astronauts to learn that. As we remember the Challenger 7 on this day, we should also take a moment to consider that those men and women would want us to continue the human drive to explore and understand the universe we are all a part of. Giving up on space exploration would be a grave injustice to the sacrifice they made that day, and to all those who gave their lives to explore and reach for the stars.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Kathy


      January 28, 2011 at 9:39 am | Report abuse |
    • Lawtoad

      Well said.

      January 28, 2011 at 11:19 am | Report abuse |
    • Paul Price

      Kevin, that was the best post of the day! Thank you. I was driving home after a sales presentation when the news o the explosion came over the radio. It was an impossible scene to visualize in my mind, so I pulled off the road, and just sat in disbelief. When I returned to my office, the TV was showing over and over what had happened. It was a sight beyond description. My heart goes out to the familes, and RIP the wonderful Challenger crew.

      January 28, 2011 at 6:02 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Connie Renaud

    My husband (Canadian) was attending a conference in Florida at the time of the tragic accident. The day prior he picked up a pair of PJ's with the NASA logo for our 9 month old son which took on a special meaning for us.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  14. Loic

    I guess I saw all shuttle launches on TV, I don't remember any of them, expect that one. I was so sad, I cried for days. These 7 astronauts died for a good cause, they are real heroes, and we should never forget them. 25 years later, space flights are still dangerous and I don't think this will become cheap and popular before many many years from now.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:50 am | Report abuse |
  15. RMPC

    II was 10 and still living in my native Venezuela. I remember being very sad. The entire world was watching and stood still. I will never forget that day.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:51 am | Report abuse |
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