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. tomcat

    @Wilko......I have not read one post that stated that "the biggest, most memborale moment in their life was".....I remember when my kids and grandbaby were born like yesterday. There are days and events that become etched in our memories. You obviously choose not to remember days when people sacrificed their lives to better ours. This blog has allowed people to not forget what happened 25 years ago. It also has a common thread that 25 years have passed and has jogged some memories. If you choose not to show some respect, move it along.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  2. JRR

    I too remember that day vividly. It was total shock. These things are not suppose to happen. Years later the feeling came back again. I was watching a special on Discovery or something like that. They were discussing the deficiencies in the design and QC of the program. They also mentioned how the personal escape gear was inadequate and the astronauts may have been alive as they were falling in to the ocean. Trying to escape, but unable to.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:18 pm | Report abuse |
  3. jason

    I was on a navy destroyer that was assigned to keep boats away during recovery efforts. It was a very sad time for the whole crew. We felt special to be a part of it.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:44 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Pamela

    Regardless of how one feels about Reagan, his speech in response was one I will never forget '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 12:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. jimbo913

    Wilko... Who do you think you are to tell people what should be memorable to them? To tell them what should and should not be tragic? Are you really that pompous? As a fifth grader at the time, I can honestly say it was the most tragic thing I had ever know up to that time. I have so many memories wrapped up in that day. Of my school's reaction, and my mom comforting me (who recently passed away). And you come on here to belittle me and tell me it wasn't really important, and that worse things happen, and that my sadness was just conjured up by the media. Your point of view is about the stupidest thing I have ever read.

    January 28, 2011 at 12:52 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Oh brother

    People, get over this crap! Who cares. They died! Blah, blah! Not the worst tragedy, not the first and certainly won't be the last! Accidents happen! These people knew the risk when they were getting strapped in! Stop crying over the past and let's focus on fixing our future! Want to sniffle over something, grab a tissue about that! I saw this live that day too! I didn't cry over it then and won't 50 years from now! Boo hoo! Poor America! Sniffle, sniffle! Get lives people! How much have you changed because of this? What have you given back because of it? Did you think about it everyday since and become a better person for it! Doubt it! You're only thinking about it because CNN reminded you! Now, get off your a$$ and go make a real difference in the world and stop feeling pity for the past! Can't change it now! For all of you that ask what I do, don't bother! In my line of work I strap in everyday and no the risk I take in keeping You safe! Your turn!

    January 28, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Report abuse |
    • jimbo913

      You are an idiot. No one is saying their lives were ruined because of this. We are just reflecting on our memories. Stop with the self-inflating ego speak... and learn to spell.

      January 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. rreidler

    sorry, last comment was sent in reply to wilko.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Report abuse |
  8. wingnut

    att steve you really should do some research before posting. see comments of others who seem to know the real deal and they are correct with the respect to whereabouts of the remains. #2 att: phil.. you are 1/2 right. pure oxygen by itself is not flammable, but introduce ANY combustable material in its viscenity and you will have a instant BANG . the more volume, the bigger the BANG. the capsule wes pressurised with pure oxygen.

    January 28, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Audrey

    Like just about everybody who was alive and over the age of five or so 25 years ago, I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I was in my early 20s, and had just pulled up to the post office in Monterey, CA, where I went every morning to pick up the mail for the law firm I worked for. The car radio was on, and I was just about to switch it off and go inside when the announcement came.

    I grew up with the "space race" and, like a lot of kids who cut their science fiction teeth on Star Trek and the like, dreamed of the day when ordinary people (even girls like me!) might go into space. I was so excited that, finally, an ordinary civilian - and a woman at that! - had finally been given the opportunity to fulfill that dream. When the announcement came, I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach.

    It wasn't until a few hours later, when I met my husband for lunch and saw President Reagan's speech on the TV in the restaurant, that the tears came. I'd always loved the poem "High Flight" by John Gillespie Magee ("O I have slipped the surly bonds of earth/and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings"), and when the president invoked it in his speech, I just broke down.

    January 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Suwanneegirl1949

    I was home after working the night shift when the shuttle exploded, because I didn't want to see it. My husband was watching downstairs when it actually happened, and he came up the stairs three at a time, yelling "It exploded, it exploded. JUST LIKE YOU SAID IT WOULD!"

    The last time the launch was cancelled, I was watching when they walked off the shuttle, and I SAW a ring-of-fire between myself and the television. And, I knew they would not survive the actual launch.

    It scared the cr*p out of me. I'd never "seen" anything before. Until the day my husband died, he told his friends, that his wife had seen the ring-of-fire and told him about it the day before. And he was a total sceptic, the biggest believer in "touch it, see it, etc." or it isn't real.

    January 28, 2011 at 3:31 pm | Report abuse |
  11. stejo

    I have an unusual memory of this. I was in North Carolina singing opera for middle schoolers – scary enough at that. Then coming back to the hotel and flipping on the TV, I couldn't believe my eyes. It's one of those memories that stays with me – I even remember the ugly gold wallpaper of the room where I was staying when I saw the report.

    January 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm | Report abuse |


    January 28, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Report abuse |
  13. DDSilks

    And they were warned, warned, warned. But Reagan wanted to use the "Teacher in Space" item in his address to the nation. So they let it go up. I think I recall someone saying to the people that warned them to "put on their management hats instead of their engineering hats" or something like that.

    January 28, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Lulis Leal

    My father was very much into science and space. Watching the launch of the Challenger was a big event in my house and something my father and I planned on watching for weeks. I remember learning all I could about the Challenger and the astronauts as the day approached. My father and I were sitting in the living room watching the countdown together. My dad was so excited that he actually applauded when the Challenger took off. Then, moments later, he and I watched in horror as the Challenger exploded. We said nothing but simply looked at each other, knowing what had happened and he got up and left the room. I sat staring at the screen a few minutes longer, then I went out on the patio where my father was. He looked at me and said, "The teacher's students were watching it live." I said, "yes." And he began to cry...

    January 28, 2011 at 4:32 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Manuel

    I was 3 yrs old when the Challenger accident happened so of course I'm not going to have any memories. However the Columbia explosion was very personal for me as most of Columbia's debris covered our city (Nacogdoches, TX). Seeing State Troopers protecting pieces all over town and Dan Rather talking to our county judge was surreal and then seeing the faces of our brave astronauts flash on TV. Wow, I mean I cried myself to sleep for very many nights.

    January 28, 2011 at 4:49 pm | Report abuse |
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