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. DaveB

    This event was very moving for all, including our team working on the design of the International Space Station at Johnson Space Center in Houston. It brought a renewed dedication to NASA

    January 28, 2011 at 10:14 am | Report abuse |
  2. Seth

    I was in 4th grade at Azalea Park Elementary in Orlando. I remember the exact spot I was standing in watching that small flame in the distance rise. We'd seen several launches before that so it was no big deal. And then the smoke trail split into a fork and we immediately went inside and turned on the TV. I can clearly remember my sweet old teacher Mrs. Smith sobbing. That wishbone shape hung in the air all day, and I probably saw the replay over 50 times that night. Tragic tragic day...

    January 28, 2011 at 10:20 am | Report abuse |
  3. Mel

    I was nine years old and was watching it with my grandfather. I remember seeing it and not really understanding what happened right away, because my grandfather quickly turned the channel and tried to distract me with cartoons.
    I do remember hearing about it afterwards because I was always fascinated with space travel.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:22 am | Report abuse |
  4. Deanna

    I remember the moment of the explosion like it was yesterday. I was five years old watching from outside our home. That day will be forever burned into my memory.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:31 am | Report abuse |
  5. Jason B.

    I was in 6th grade at the time. I remember them taking us down to the library to watch the coverage on TV that morning. Man...has it really been 25 years? When I think of this event it still leaves a deep sadness in my heart to this day.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  6. Angela

    I have always wondered if the crew had any idea what was about to happen in the seconds before it exploded.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Matt

      At T+68, the CAPCOM Richard Covey informed the crew that they were "go at throttle up", and Commander Dick Scobee confirmed the call. At this stage the situation still seemed normal both to the astronauts and to flight controllers. His response, "Roger, go at throttle up," was the last communication from Challenger on the air-to-ground loop.

      The last statement captured by the crew cabin recorder came just half a second after this acceleration, when Pilot Michael J. Smith said "Uh oh." at T+72.525

      So, there were 4 seconds between them thinking everything was fine to the end. I doubt it.

      January 28, 2011 at 1:16 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Julia

    I also will never forget that day in history. I was employed by the Department of Defense in St Louis MO at the time and there were between 5500 and 7000 civilians & military personnel on the command listening or watching the launch that day. As we listened over the intercom system you could see in the faces of your co-workers the shock and disbelief of what we were hearing or watching. They closed our offices that day and told everyone to go home. I will always remember the families they left behind, but hope they know how proud we as Americans are of the dads, mom, husbands and wife who gave their lives for our country. I'm sure they have grandchildren by now and I want them to know the sacrifice they made that day for our country will not be forgotten.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  8. Jim

    I was home from school at the family steak shop. I was the only one watching the launch. I ran to my parents and said it exploded. They said no thats normal its just the boosters. I was like no no come to the TV it exploded. We had a small black and white tv and no we didn't have cable to see it on CNN.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:53 am | Report abuse |
  9. Garry

    Is it too much trouble to mention, by name, the other Challenger crew members who lost their lives that day? Were their lives any less valuable, or their deaths any less tragic, than Christa McAuliffe's? Imagine how their families must feel whenever they have to re-live that day via news reports, only to hear her name repeated again and again? It is beyond insulting.
    The seven people who lost their lives on Challeger were: Dick Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnick, and Christa McAuliffe. I had to look it up. It's too bad major news organizations can't be bothered to do the same thing.

    January 28, 2011 at 10:58 am | Report abuse |
  10. Dan

    So typical in America how those who were responsible for allowing the launch in such cold weather were never criminally prosecuted. They allowed it despite the pleas of the engineer who knew what cold weather did to the rubber seals because he couldn't "prove" there would be a disaster. They should have received life sentences w/o parole.

    Had they been prosecuted, there's a good chance Columbia would not have been launched years later, because NASA knew about the foam problem and ignored it. Those responsible for the Columbia disaster were not prosecuted either.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Wilko

      Dan- that could never happen, as it would require the interjection of reality into the 'super-human hero' myth that surrounds these two events. There is a need by the media and the people with empty lives to have this charade extended.

      January 28, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  11. Jim

    My heart still goes out to the astronauts and their families. We lost many gret people in the space race.

    I remember seeing the disaster and thinking about how horrific the final moments were for the crew. Within days NASA announced that the deaths were "instantaneous" – I commented to several friends that NASA was covering up (what if the public demanded that the program end?). It took nearly three years for NASA to admit that the astronauts survived the initial explosion and rode their crippled airship into the water. When will our government learn to trust us with bad news?

    January 28, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  12. Christian

    I remember watching this with my father on AFN in Germany. I had just got home from school and my Dad was home from work. Still as vivid in my memory today as that day 25 years ago.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
  13. kenish

    The late Dr. Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant scientific minds of the time. (His books are a good read and more about people and spirituality than physics). He was on the Rogers Commission that investigated the Challenger explosion. During some lengthy hearings about the effect of cold on the o-ring material, he famously ran an experiment at his seat....he dunked a sample of the o-ring in his glass of ice water and snapped it in half.

    January 28, 2011 at 11:31 am | Report abuse |
  14. Erica

    I was 6. In a first grade classroom in a school named for another astronaut, Ed White Elementary in Houston, my class sat to watch the launch. NASA was everyday life for a lot of kids in that classroom. Our parents worked for NASA, we passed the JSC campus daily, perhaps an astronaut lived a few doors down from us.. we dreamed of being astronauts. I will never forget that day in 1986. I'll never forget the lines of light streaking across that blue sky. I'll never forget how quiet the entire school became or how quickly our teacher turned the tv off. Even at 6, I knew what happened immediately. It was like the City's collective heart sank. In the days and weeks that followed a memorial of flowers, pictures, bows and all sorts of other items was formed on the fence surrounding NASA'S campus.

    The other thing I'll never forget is a particular portion of the speech our President gave. It was supposed to be the State of the Union but was changed due to the incident. It's this last part that always causes me to fall quiet again:

    "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 11:46 am | Report abuse |
    • Sue

      I love what you said! I am amazed how many people are still affected by this event.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:18 pm | Report abuse |
    • Don

      Your words have helped clarify the memory of this day !.

      January 28, 2011 at 9:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Dean

    I remember that day pretty vividly, even 25 yrs on. I was a college student then, at UCF. I'd been studying on one of the upper floors of the library that day in a cubicle. After a few hours, I came down to the ground floor to take a break. At the reception desk near the entrance, they'd turned a TV on and many other students were watching. I thought this was very unusual, having the tv on in the library. That's when I found out about the explosion. It's really interesting how some traumatic experiences can be ingrained into your memory. The same thing with 9-11. I remember that day (and subsequent days) vividly.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
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