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. Zeibodique

    We all remember where we were during the Challenger accident. What few remember is 44 years ago or 19 years and 1 day before Challenger on January 27th 1967, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White were killed in a pure oxygen fire aboard Apollo 1 during a routine test launch.

    January 28, 2011 at 8:59 am | Report abuse |
    • Lawtoad

      Zeibodique: The Apollo 1 fire was another truly horrific event in which 3 American heroes died. I was only a small child when that occurred, but do remember the news coverage and the sadness that people expressed at the time. You are right, I'm guessing most of the posters on this board are too young to remember the event or the anguish that the American people felt at the time.

      January 28, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      Oxygen – even pure oxygen, is...not...flammable. If oxygen were flammable, we'd be screwed the first time something caught fire on the planet.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |
    • Phil

      Allow me to add that high concentrations of oxygen, coupled with high pressure made certain things more flammable than they would have been at normal atmospheric pressure... But by itself, the gas is not flammable.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • willy

      I wasnt born when that flash fire happened. I did read about it and it was incredibly sad.Was it broadcast on the news? the test? or did they only broadcast actual luanches? anyone know

      January 28, 2011 at 2:51 pm | Report abuse |
    • Spaceman Spiff

      Willy, it was broadcast on the news. It was huge. The first fatalities in the space program, and many were worried that we wouldn't make it to the moon. But it was a learning experience. Before Apollo I, no one figured out that you didn't need pure oxygen in space. Pure oxygen made space travel extremely risky. So they went with oxygen/nitrogen. Problem solved. Too bad they didn't figure that out in the Mercury days!

      January 29, 2011 at 12:28 am | Report abuse |
  2. Graced

    I still get choked up remember that day. Love this song that references it...it was true, the whole world cried...

    It was the dawning of a new decade
    When we got our first microwave
    And Dad broke down and finally shaved
    Those sideburns off
    I took the stickers off of my Rubix cube
    Watched MTV all afternoon
    My first love was Daisy Duke
    In them cut off jeans
    A Space Shuttle fell out of the sky
    And the whole world cried

    January 28, 2011 at 9:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Angelica

      What song is that? I'm 20 so I'm not old enough to know but it's something I'd like to listen to teach me about back then.
      Just watching the video makes my heart sink.

      January 31, 2011 at 9:15 pm | Report abuse |
  3. tomcat

    Much like the death of F.D.R. and the Kenedy assasination there are certain dates that will always be remembered by those that were old enough to know. The simple fact as Joe pointed out the the lack of communication betweeen NASA and Morton Thiokal engineers was an issue. These flaws were even discussed in 1977 when the rockets were built. After many delays due to weather, NASA deemed that after de-icing due to the cold temps the shuttle was ok to launch. I am not sure what the cost of an o ring for the solid rocket booster (srb) cost, but it was not enough to cover the tragic loss of life. Even after an investigation and further issues that still plague NASA to this day, the "show must go on".

    January 28, 2011 at 9:03 am | Report abuse |
  4. Judy

    I can't believe 25 years. I skipped German class at Auburn to watch the launch at Foy Union. I can close my eyes and go back to that day in an instant and the same feeling of sadness is still there.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:08 am | Report abuse |
    • FlaFil

      I, too, was in college at the time. I remember learning of the incident upon returning to my residence hall from a class. I went to my room and watched the coverage for hours. Six weeks later I was in Ft. Lauderdale and remember thinking about it occurring so close to there. Very sad.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ravensun

      That makes three of us. My journalism class let out early, and the instructor, one other student, and I literally *ran* down the hall to the journalism office to watch the launch. We were seconds too late... the first thing I saw was the trail of smoke... and every time I see it, I am catapulted back to that day.

      January 29, 2011 at 6:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. tomcat

    Addendum to my previos post. I did not bring up 9-11 due to the fact that it would open a hail storm of off topic conversation. I ask that we use this time to reflect on the Shuttle Crew and their families on that fateful day 25 years ago. Thank You.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:16 am | Report abuse |
    • g san

      I for one understood perfectly why you didn't mention that September. 🙂

      on the subject f the Apollo 1 crew, I think the Challenger tragedy specially stings is because many of us saw it live. I was 7 and in Mexico and I still remember crying about those poor people, especially because my mom had been telling me about the teacher who was going to space and now she was dead.

      January 28, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Jon

    I was 11 and at home for one of those teacher work days. I was watching the Price is Right and they interrupted programming to report the disaster. I remember going up stairs to tell my Mom, "Mom, I think the space shuttle exploded." I will never for that day and the speech President Reagan made...

    “We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of Earth' to 'touch the face of God”

    January 28, 2011 at 9:23 am | Report abuse |
    • Robyn

      @Jon,
      Wow, I was a senior in high school and that is exactly what I remember. I worked 4th period in the school Library and knew something was weird because the Librarians were talking (!) in the library when I came in. They had me wheel a TV in and we watched the replay in stunned silence. I went home with a friend at lunch and watched President Reagan deliver those words which I've remembered for a lifetime.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Ravensun

      I was too stunned to remember watching the speech live, but I hear it in my head every time I read it... the words, in Reagan's voice.

      January 29, 2011 at 6:32 am | Report abuse |
  7. Tony

    i will never forget. I was in a class in Syracuse University (NY) when the disaster happened. All classes were suspended fo for the day.
    Nowadays I'm a US History teacher in Miami (FL) and should remember first teacher-turned-astronaut, Christa McAuliffe.
    Let all remember and never die our space program.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:30 am | Report abuse |
  8. DYLANSDADDY

    I was in 2nd grade and watching the launch with my class. Even being that young I still remember it quite vividly. It’s one of those events that you remember where you were and what you were doing. Like 9/11, or for the older generation when Kennedy was assassinated.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • NikkiN

      I was also in second grade and vividly remember watching this sad event live with the rest of my classmates. The only sound in the room after it happend was our teacher quietly crying. Such a sad day in America's history!

      January 28, 2011 at 10:43 am | Report abuse |
  9. Cybersport

    I was working for a radio station here in Pennsylvania at the time. I remember pulling something off the wire that indicated there was a problem. From then on, all we were doing was monitoring the wire and our network for news of the accident.

    It didn't affect me emotionally for a while because I was in "work mode."

    January 28, 2011 at 9:35 am | Report abuse |
  10. bubber

    <>

    Typical reporters. They think it's all about them. The world exists for them.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:38 am | Report abuse |
    • Brad

      How else would you like them to report the experience? I'd rather relive it through their eyes and ears (they were there, I wasn't) than reading a random stream of facts. I agree lots of them are egotistical, but jeez, who else would you like them to pretend they were that day?

      January 28, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Thorbecke

    French composer/synthesizer artist Jean Michel Jarre had composed a piece of music that was to be played by Ron McNair on his saxophone, in the weightlessness of space. Ron died aboard the space shuttle that day. During the massive concert Jarre performed in Houston (Guinness Book of Records listed the concert of having 1.2 million attendees), they showed Ron rehearsing the piece in a simulated weightlessness situation (freefall), and 1.2 million people cried. Look for Rendez Vous 6 or Ron's Piece on your favorite music site and listen to it, and remember.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:42 am | Report abuse |
  12. golfher

    I was at work when someone came running to me, yelling "the shuttle blew up!". I grew up in Cocoa Beach, Florida and worked on Columbia at KSC, so my first thought was "did it blow up on the pad?". I immediately called my sister who works at KSC, but could not reach her since a lockdown went into effect pretty quickly. My brother-in-law was watching what was happening from in the firing room and the engineers could see on their monitors that something was seriously wrong before it exploded. I cried that entire day and still cannot watch footage of the explosion without getting emotional; it was an honor to work for our nation's space program and our astronauts are brave men and women. I'll never forget my Dad being shocked that they launched that morning; after years of living in the area, he just couldn't believe that NASA gave a go to launch in cold Florida weather that left icicles on the launch tower.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  13. Donald

    It was a bad thing that happened. i was not born then but on that day 25 years ago my cousin was born at like 9AM he is now 25 what a weird thing to happen. He was born and they died.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
    • tomcat

      Much has been said that when someone dies, a baby is born to replace them. The same can be said about Christina Taylor Green, born on 9-11. Unlike Christina, I hope your cousin has been given the chance to prosper.

      January 28, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
  14. pookster

    "Reporters were screaming at the NASA public affairs officers, demanding that they be taken out to the space shuttle landing strip."

    Really? Did these reporters not recognize that NASA had much bigger things to worry about? Geez.

    January 28, 2011 at 9:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Bob

      Probably, more like "asking" to be taken to the landind strip.

      January 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Kris

    I will never forget this day either. It was my 18th birthday and I had set the VCR at home to record the launch, as I had school that day. I still have that video tape and all the coverage of the explosion that I recorded later that day and evening. When my daughter is a little older, I plan to share it with her. She needs to know about the sacrifice these brave men and women gave (as well as the other astronauts lost through the years).

    I am 43 years old today - six of the seven astronauts did not live to see my age. They were the bravest of the brave and I always think of them on my birthday and celebrate another year of MY life in their memory. May we never forget them.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:08 am | Report abuse |
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