Michael Kranish

In 1986, Michael Kranish was assigned to cover the lift-off of the Space Shuttle Challenger

 

And then a child said, 'Where is it?'

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla.—In the massive steel structure of Launch Pad 39B, Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts sat strapped on their backs in the space shuttle Challenger. In the VIP grandstand, two miles away, McAuliffe's parents and friends began reciting the countdown, awaiting history.

It was cold, windy, a day of crystal blue sky. On the nearby rooftop of Mission Control headquarters, McAuliffe's husband, Steven, and their two children could hear the countdown chant.

What had started as an impossible dream, being picked from 11,000 applicants to be the first private citizen in space, was about to take off.

"3! 2! 1! Blast off!" shouted the classmates of McAuliffe's 9-year-old son, Scott.

From huge cylindrical rockets, about 3.8 million pounds of solid-fuel propellant boosted the 110-ton spacecraft skyward. An arcing contrail painted the sky.

"Oh, it's beautiful," said Mark Beauvais, superintendent of the Concord, N.H., school district, where McAuliffe taught.

"Go! Go!" urged Scott McAuliffe's 8- and 9-year-old classmates. There was wild applause, whistles.

"Look at it, all the colors," one awestruck student said.

Then a child: "Where is it?"

One plume of white smoke headed in one direction, another plume seemed to turn on itself in a curlicue. The shuttle, most grandstand observers assumed, had made its routine separation from its rocket.

Through the shouts of joy, the voice of NASA Mission Control boomed through nearby loudspeakers.

"Obviously a major malfunction," Mission Control said.

That was all the voice said. Obviously a major malfunction.

From the hundreds of spectators, suddenly, came silence.

"What happened?" someone asked.

"Shhhh!" another said. The ripplelike roar of the rocket, so familiar to a generation that has grown up with space travel, could be heard in the distance.

For 33 seconds, there was silence in the crowd. Some children giggled, not knowing.

Then Mission Control, the voice a monotone, unemotional: "We have a report that the vehicle has exploded."

Like a wave, shock streamed through the aisles. No one, it seemed, understood.

"The contingency procedures are in effect," Mission Control said.

Edward and Grace Corrigan, McAuliffe's parents from Framingham, Mass., stood still. Their feet moved not an inch. They had hugged during the launch, smiling widely, fingers pressed into each other's back.

Now, shock. The Corrigans hugged, ever more tightly it seemed, but they did not move. Nearby, relatives of the six other astronauts had similar, silent reactions.

Mission Control repeated: "We have a report that the vehicle has exploded."

"Oh, my God," someone said. The 11 chaperones of Scott McAuliffe's 17- member class, suddenly mobilized.

"Everyone, get together," a chaperone said.

A chaperone who was a friend of McAuliffe burst into tears at the voice of Mission Control.

The idea that Sharon Christa McAuliffe was had been killed began to sink in. And with it came rage, shock, denial.

Jo Ann Jordan, McAuliffe's best friend, stood at the foot of the grandstand. Jordan had lunched with McAuliffe every day during the application process last summer, had helped McAuliffe buy a dress for the NASA interview, had lived through every moment of McAuliffe's extraordinary voyage from Concord.

Mission Control, again: "We have a report that the vehicle has exploded. Rescue teams are in the area."

"It didn't explode, it didn't explode," Jordan cried out. A friend took her in her arms. They sobbed together.

Everywhere, amid the wailing cries of children and adults, strangers hugged. Children, confused children, their eyes watery, cheeks red from tears, looked in disbelief.

The Corrigans stepped down from the grandstand, surrounded by friends. A few days before, they had met the press and said they were nervous but that they knew Christa McAuliffe trusted NASA. Soon, the press corps spotted the Corrigans, but not a single reporter approached them.

"Let's get out of here," a friend of the Corrigans' said, and the group quickly headed toward Mission Control.

Then, there was hope, but so briefly. "A parachute," someone screamed. A paramedic on a search, someone yelled back. Later, NASA said it was a parachute from a fuel tank.

Next came the thoughts no one wanted to speak. Five miles up in space, ''the vehicle had exploded." Exploded. No one could imagine what it must have been like. Rescue crews could not reach the ocean site 18 miles at sea for an hour because debris continued to fall from the sky.

The press corp of 800, twice the usual number because of interest in McAuliffe's mission, scrambled to a bank of 10 pay phones in a domed press center. Many journalists had interviewed McAuliffe and her family and had instinctively liked Christa McAuliffe: She was brassy, fiesty, the kind of person who said what she thought and had people believe it.

In the press box sat hundreds of reporters who had never seen a launch and a few who had witnessed every one since 1961.

"I just can't believe it, it is sudden shock, disbelief, said Sue Butler Hannifan, a Time-Life correspondent. She has witnessed every manned space launch, from Alan Shepard's maiden space voyage, to the death of three astronauts on the launching pad on Jan. 27, 1967, to the moon shot, to the walks in space, to this.

"To us in the space press, these are not just astronauts, these are our friends, the people we socialize with," she said. "I just . . ." Then she, too, burst into tears.

Somewhere in the sprawling NASA complex, meanwhile, Steven McAuliffe and his children, Scott and Caroline, 6, waited.

There would be a debriefing. There probably would be a telephone call from the person who had originally proposed that a teacher be picked as the first citizen in space, President Reagan.

And later, in the minds of many who watched the 75-second flight here, surely a voice would be repeating itself again and again. It would say: "The vehicle has exploded."