Excerpted from the book, ‘The Father, Son and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious ’80s’, by Patrick Mullane, copyright (c) 2020 by Patrick Mullane
CHAPTER 13: COLD DAY
“Pat – you need to go to Mr. Neil’s office.”
Ms. Trahan, my economics teacher, had just taken a note from Angela, a girl who lived down the street from me in the Brook Forest subdivision. Angela, like me, worked in the office one period a day – a cushy “class” for seniors who had enough credits to take it easy their last five months at Lake. She had cracked the door open a few moments earlier and handed a small slip of paper to Ms. Trahan, who had nonchalantly told me that I needed to report to the principal’s office.
I rose from my desk, leaving my books, perplexed at why I was being summoned. It was a Tuesday morning in late January and I was enjoying my last semester at Lake after getting my immediate future squared away – in fact, I was wearing a light Notre Dame sweatshirt I’d found at a nearby sports apparel store so that the world would know where I’d be in the fall. The weather that day had buoyed my spirits too. While Houston’s summer months were brutal, the winter months could be quite pleasant. A cold front had passed through the day before on its march eastward and it had been a chilly by Houston standards, 52°, about ten degrees cooler than normal. But on that Tuesday, the temperature had recovered nicely, and the day was approaching 70° with clear, blue skies and low humidity. I had an Ocean Pacific tee on underneath my Notre Dame sweatshirt so that I could shed the long sleeves later when the temperature rose.
While I was confused as to why I was being asked to go to the office, I was initially unconcerned. I wasn’t the kind of kid who got into trouble, so I knew the summons was not related to having some tough discussion about an infraction earlier in the day. But when I got to the classroom door and stepped into the hallway, my anxiety ratcheted up a notch; I noticed that Angela looked horribly distraught. Her eyes were puffy. She had clearly been crying.
“What’s wrong Angela?” I asked as we began walking down the long hallway lined with lockers.
“Nothing,” she said, and then added, awkwardly, “It’s okay.” What’s okay? I thought. If “nothing” was wrong, why say “it’s okay?” She was lying and I knew it.
Then, it hit me. Oh God.
Dad was out west – I couldn’t remember where – with the rest of his STS-62A crew. They were doing some training together for their upcoming launch. As was customary, particularly for a crew getting close to a mission, they hadn’t flown on commercial flights to their meetings. They had taken their NASA T-38 jets.
Dad had been in an accident. I was sure of it.
He told tales frequently of flying in those jets and about how trips in them with other astronauts often wasn’t a typical “take off and climb to your cruising altitude” endeavor. They would fly low level over the deserts of the west, pulling up to get over power lines. They would “dog-fight” each other over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, like teens recklessly racing cars. They’d dart in and out of valleys and canyons, giving themselves little time to recover if an engine flamed out or ingested a bird. They’d do all the things you’d expect hot-shot fighter jocks to do, letting testosterone and adrenaline fuel risk-taking in pursuit of a drugless rush.
“Angela,” I said, pleading, “please tell me what’s wrong.” She didn’t answer.
I was living a horrifying déjà vu. I was on the roof of the LCC again, knowing Dad had died but having no confirmation of it, the hint of ambiguity gnawing at me relentlessly, a drip-drip of nightmarish horror. Where was Mom? Was Amy being called out of class too? Laura had stayed home from school that morning, she was sick. Did she already know? I fought tears and anger as I trailed Angela. Her head was down. The hallway seemed to stretch as we walked, our destination and clarity around what was going on seeming no closer with every step.
The central office at Lake had a glass wall that faced out into one of the main arteries through the center of the school. As Angela and I finally came to the end of the hallway where my class was, we entered the area in front of the office and I could see a group of people huddled around a television on a cart. The back of the T.V. was facing the hallway though so I couldn’t tell what they were watching. And, in fact, I had no reason to believe that what they were watching had any relevance to my removal from class. I noted their gathering in passing, frustrated that they seemed more concerned with what was being broadcast than the anguish I was feeling.
“Pat,” the senior principal, Mr. Neil, said to me as I entered the office, “something happened to Challenger.”
I was confused. Challenger? The space shuttle? Then I remembered, there was a launch planned for that morning. I had seen the news while getting ready for school and recalled that blastoff had been delayed that morning because of a faulty fire detector near the launch pad that had to be replaced. The reporter mentioned in a verbal footnote that NASA had also sent an ice inspection team to the launch pad overnight; it was unusually cold in Florida. They were getting the brunt of the cold front that had made Houston chilly the day before and into that morning. But besides noting a delay and the cold weather marching eastward, I hadn’t given the launch much thought.
It’s a strange irony that the mission that would launch a teacher into space was of relatively little consequence in our school district. In a town where launches were the life’s work of so many and astronauts showed up at parent-teacher conferences, sporting events, and school plays, the launch of Challenger with Christa McAuliffe didn’t elevate the mission to a level deserving of special attention. Our town had already lived through twenty-four launches that put the lives of our neighbors, parents, and friends at risk. The presence of a woman from New Hampshire who was a temporary visitor in our world didn’t reach the threshold of uniqueness that would make the launch a must-see event.
“What do you mean-”
I started to respond to Mr. Neil, but my words got caught in my throat as I turned to face the television. There, I saw the replay of the launch and the subsequent disintegration of Challenger. I let out an audible gasp and immediately felt tears come to my eyes.
“I wanted to be sure the astronaut kids knew,” Mr. Neil said quickly and with a hint of apology, explaining why I had been dragged from class.
In the instant after he said this, I felt a range of emotions that were virtually impossible to reconcile. Dad was alive, then? I couldn’t help but be relieved. But the moment I felt the relief that came with that realization, I was awash in a smothering guilt. Sure, Dad was safe. But, despite talk on the television about rescue crews being dispatched to search the Atlantic for Challenger survivors, I knew with certainty that Dad’s colleagues were dead. It was a crew I knew well. Four of Challenger’s astronauts were TFNGs, chosen in the same astronaut class with Dad: Commander Dick Scobee, Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka, Mission Specialist Ronald McNair, and Mission Specialist Judy Resnik. Pilot Mike Smith, Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis and teacher Christa McAuliffe rounded out the seven-person crew.
The loss of Judy hit me hardest. She and Dad had shared a rookie flight on Discovery. Single and far from a family she was partially estranged from, she had spent a good deal of time at our home. In an age when women were relatively absent from the world of military aviation, she seemed exotic to me. She was petite with long, black hair that curled into tight coils around an olive-skinned face. To a teenaged boy who was noticing not only girls my own age but attractive older women, she seemed more like a star in a movie about female astronauts than an actual female astronaut. Of course, today this rings of sexism – because it was. But I was a child of an aviation community of the late seventies and early eighties that was dominated by a fraternity of men – only men. While I never recall Dad saying anything disparaging about women and their ability to do (or not do) something, the ethos of the network he lived in – and that I associated with by extension – was hyper-masculine. Women didn’t have to be disparaged because they were completely excluded; it’s easy to be ambivalent about people who don’t occupy your own club.
I watched and re-watched the conflagration that ended Challenger’s ascent, each viewing bringing more pain. The room had become crowded. Amy arrived and we hugged each other, bringing more tears from me and from her. With the addition of each student, teacher, and administrator to the office, the anguish in the space accumulated like rain filling a cistern. While the rest of the country began to mourn in the way people mourn for a celebrity they loved but never really knew, my Clear Lake community began a lamentation in the old-world, biblical sense. It was the sort of all-consuming sadness that a town might experience when seven firefighters from the same station were killed in a single fire. Except it was worse in so many ways; the residents of the community the firefighters were from were not collectively responsible for the fire. But even in the moments after I first saw what would become the iconic image of the Challenger loss – a ball of liquid oxygen and hydrogen vaporizing and igniting as the two solid rocket boosters twisted into the sky in an unguided, meandering walk – I knew that the cause of the disintegration would ultimately be laid at the feet of the very people who now shed tears in Clear Lake.
Again, the lessons from a life as the son of an aviator came home to roost in a disturbing way. The causes of crashes in the aviation world were almost always pilot error.* Even when a mechanical failure occurred, it was most often the reaction of the pilot to the anomaly and not the failure itself that resulted in a crash. But it was virtually impossible for pilot error to have been the cause of what was playing on an endless loop in the main office. The pilot and commander of a space shuttle were not in control of the vehicle during launch. Computers were. Challenger’s crew was along for the ride. So, if the incident was not caused by those on Challenger it was almost certainly caused by some latent design flaw that had always existed – a design flaw that men and women in the homes around the Johnson Space Center and throughout the network of NASA contractors were collectively responsible for. It was a design flaw that had undoubtedly been lurking when Discovery rocketed skyward with Dad on it sixteen months earlier. I knew that in addition to the crushing sadness in those homes around Clear Lake that evening, there would be a lot of soul searching, a lot of “what did I miss?” questions.
* It is estimated that approximately 80% of aviation crashes are the result of pilot error.
School came to an end that day shortly after Challenger was torn to pieces. Classes weren’t officially canceled but nobody could pretend that things were normal. The phones in the office, which were silent in the moments after I got there, began to ring with an urgent persistence. Parents were calling in, wondering what the plan for the rest of the day was, many asking to come and get their children. The administrators knew that it was prudent to let people go home given the distraction of the heartrending loss and, besides, there were concerns about the press descending on the school and the circus atmosphere that might create. On that day, three of my fellow students at Clear Lake High School lost a parent – Janelle Onizuka and Scott and Allison Smith. Their affiliation with Lake would quickly be discovered and the administrators knew that in short order news vans would be parked out front with their antennae telescoped skyward, beaming sorrow through the ether, just as they had done during the suicide “epidemic” a year-and-a-half before.
Mom arrived at the school not long after I had made it to the office. She had been crying and started to again as she hugged Amy and me. I asked her: “Mom, where is Dad?” I knew he was alright, but I still need to hear it from her.
“He’s in New Mexico, at Los Alamos. But he’s on his way home with the rest of the crew. I talked to him,” she added. I let out a breath and some of the tension nesting deep within me released, leaving my body like a demon succumbing to an exorcism.
Mom knew many of the administrators at Lake and spent some time in the office talking to them with the quiet reverence that always accompanies a discussion of deaths that came early and unexpectedly. An announcement was made over the intercom and at the next bell students went to payphones to contact their parents, some crying as they did. Mom, Amy, and I left the office to head home. The Challenger loss had happened at around 10:40 a.m. central time, about two hours past its scheduled launch. Nearly an hour had passed by the time we were leaving the school. The cafeteria was near the main entrance to Lake and we passed by students who were eating in stunned silence or apathetically picking through their plates. A pall had descended upon us, a pall no less traumatic than if the cloud of fuel and debris from Challenger fell onto our school from above.
Once home, I turned on the news and watched the wall-to-wall coverage of the disaster. Steve Bell, an anchor on ABC, was narrating recorded footage that showed a parachute descending with an indistinguishable form beneath it, noting that there was hope that it was the shuttle’s “escape capsule.” It was maddening for me to watch.
There was no escape capsule.
I didn’t know what the parachute was, but I knew that it wasn’t saving the life of anybody on Challenger. He went on to explain that there was no information available yet from NASA. How could there be? They knew what everybody watching television that day knew – that the shuttle appeared to explode right after the “go at throttle up” call. But beyond that, there was a vacuum of information.
Bell then said, “Now we’ll go to Larry Speakes at the White House who apparently has an announcement coming up ….”
Speakes, the Deputy Press Secretary for President Reagan, said that the President had been in the Oval Office with some senior staff preparing for a lunch with the press to talk about the budget and State of the Union address.* The Vice President and several others came into the Oval Office and informed President Reagan of what had happened, then all of them then did exactly what I had done – they turned on the T.V. to see what was being reported. When Speakes was done with his announcement, the images transitioned to the ABC studios in Washington again. Peter Jennings had joined Bell in the studio. The man I watched every night with my father was now reporting on the deaths of Dad’s friends.
* The State of the Union address was to have happened that evening but was subsequently delayed owing to the loss of Challenger.
As I watched, I wondered where the families of the crewmembers were. The wives, husbands, and children would have been where I was two years before during the launch of Discovery – on the roof of the LCC. But the extended family members – including Christa McAuliffe’s parents – were in a more accessible viewing area and the images on television of their faces transitioning from elation to confusion to grief were some of the hardest to watch that day. I remembered my own experiences on the roof when I thought Dad had been killed and experienced for just a moment the special anguish that comes from thinking your loved one had perished violently and in full view of the entire world. Of course, I had gotten to experience a joyful relief when I realized Dad was going to be fine. But my high school classmates – Janelle, Allison, and Scott – and McAuliffe’s parents wouldn’t get that blessed absolution.
We stayed glued to the television all day and couldn’t help but wonder out loud what the loss of Challenger would mean for the entire shuttle program. It was a bit selfish, but Mom, Amy, Laura, and I began to realize that a cancellation of the shuttle program would leave us in a state of limbo. If there was no shuttle, there would be no need for astronauts which meant there would be no need for Dad to stay in Houston. Would he go back to the military? Or join a defense contractor? I couldn’t imagine Dad doing the latter. It would be like asking Indiana Jones to work with snakes. Dad would have hated a “normal” job.
But any fears we had initially melted away bit-by-bit as we watched more coverage of the launch and loss of STS 51-L. The country was mourning in a way that we found surprising. Shuttle launches had become routine enough that it was hard to know if the population cared while things were going well. But the reaction to the accident that morning had shown that America did care.* For every comment by a pundit or citizen about how tragic the day had been, there was one proclaiming that the loss of Challenger was a price that the country expected to pay in the interest of advancing the goals of exploration and scientific discovery, that we must press on. The survival of the program would depend a lot on what was discovered as the cause of the accident, but it seemed clearer to me as the day wore on that the sentiment of the country would not kill the shuttle.
* Contrary to popular belief, the launch of STS-51L was viewed live by very few people. Those networks that did cover the launch cutaway right after liftoff, too impatient to get back to regular programming. CNN carried the launch from liftoff through the loss, but it was a new, six-year-old network without the reach it has today. The few students watching in their classrooms were viewing a satellite feed NASA had set up because of Christa McAuliffe’s position on the crew, not a live network feed.
In the afternoon, Mom drove to Ellington Field to pick up Dad as he returned in a three-aircraft formation with the rest of the STS-62A crew from Los Alamos. Amy, Laura, and I stayed home.
Ellington had become for me a location dripping with meaning. It was where I had gone excitedly with Dad to hop into Cessnas and fly together through the milky skies of southeast Texas. It was where we had gone to greet Dad upon his return from his first mission to space. And now, it was where he’d return full of grief and uncertainty after the tragic loss of friends and the possible loss of his opportunity to return to space again. It would not be the first time that Dad would be apart from Mom for significant events in both their lives. Dad got engaged to Mom via the U.S. Mail, there was no dinner at a nice restaurant, a velvet box, and a bent knee. He was living alone in Florida when he was almost killed before bailing out of a crashing airplane. He was out of town when he was selected as an astronaut. And now, he was a thousand miles away when Challenger was lost.
While Mom was gone to get Dad, I heard the phone ring in the kitchen. I didn’t rise to get it though; I was too immersed in the television news. But Amy or Laura must have answered, because the ringing stopped fairly quickly. I thought nothing of it.
When Dad and Mom returned home, we all came together in a small pod of tear-laden hugs. Dad looked worn. Even now he didn’t cry, but he didn’t have too. He was hurting. His features, usually firm and radiating optimism and good humor, now appeared drawn and more elastic, as if the accumulated joy in his life was melting from his face. It was the first time I ever saw him looking so forlorn and it bothered me. But the look didn’t last long as his sadness turned to anger in short order when Laura mentioned to him that a reporter had called while he was gone.
“A reporter?” Dad asked.
“Yes, he asked if you were home and I said no,” Laura answered proudly, knowing she had said the right thing. “Then he asked me how you felt when Challenger blew up.”
Dad’s features now became hard with anger. He started to say something then stopped himself and took a deep breath. Then, calmly, he said to all of us, “Nobody answers the phone. Let the answering machine get it. You understand? For the rest of the day, we won’t answer any calls.” We all nodded.
I was old enough to understand the anger he had. It was at best inappropriate for a reporter to call an astronaut at home hours after his friends had died and ask him how he felt – but at least Dad knew what he had signed up for. Interviewing the fourteen-year-old daughter of an astronaut in the hours after such a tragedy, though, was downright slimy.
That evening, Dad drank a Coors Light and ate some pecans while we tuned into ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings. The broadcast didn’t start with the usual theme music, trumpets lofting high in pitch and then falling as drums compelled them onward again. It started with the video that began at the “Go at throttle up” call and the subsequent disintegration. Peter Jennings explained that the entire newscast would be devoted to the loss of Challenger. Dad sat silently but his anger of earlier had dissipated and he transitioned into an analytic mode. An ABC correspondent showed slow motion video of the apparent explosion and she was pointing out what others were already noting: there appeared to be a flame growing at the lower right side SRB in the moments before “go at throttle up.” Was this the “smoking gun?”
As the newscast continued, Dad seemed to relax, to the extent that was possible on such a traumatic day. When Peter Jennings was done with his broadcast, we flipped channels to another station and heard the speech President Reagan had given from the Oval Office that day. “Sometimes painful things like this happen,” Reagan said, “it’s all part of the process of exploration and discovery; it’s all part of taking a chance and expanding man’s horizons. The future doesn’t belong to the faint-hearted, it belongs to the brave.”
“I can’t believe the reaction to it,” Dad said as he swallowed some beer. “I thought for sure people would be saying it was time to cancel the program.”
If I had told him at that time that the shuttle program would go on to fly an additional 109 missions and would even survive the loss of another shuttle (Columbia in 2003), he’d have had me committed. The increasing confidence we had that public sentiment – at least in the hours after the loss – was on the side of NASA, seemed to let some of the earlier apprehension out of our house. Maybe we could stay in Houston. Maybe Dad would still get a chance to fly out of Vandenberg.
The next several months were a blur. I was finishing up my senior year right around the time that the Rogers Commission – an investigative body put together to determine the cause of the Challenger disaster – delivered its final report to President Reagan. Dad was shocked at how quickly the cause of the deadly accident had been determined and even more shocked at how quickly the report was completed – five months. The cause of the loss of Challenger was determined to be a failure of two O-rings at the bottom of the right SRB.
When I first heard the term “O-ring” I thought of the small rubbery rings I had seen Dad use during a plumbing project at home; I envisioned tiny gaskets going into a leaky faucet. Indeed, before the ubiquitous use of the term in relation to the loss of Challenger, O-rings brought to mind for most Americans what they did for me: nothing more than a glorified rubber band. But the O-rings referred to in the Rogers Commission Report were enormous. They were the same diameter as the SRB itself, about twelve feet across, and served a very important purpose.
SRBs needed O-rings because of a fundamental attribute of their manufacture and assembly: they were not made as one piece given their size but were manufactured in segments that were stacked and bolted together at KSC. Inside each of those segments was the solid fuel, a mixture of chemicals that was the consistency of a hardened paste.* But the fuel didn’t fill the entire inside of each segment. Rather, there was a hole down the center of the fuel so that when all the segments were stacked, the SRB was like a pencil with the lead removed. This was because the fuel didn’t burn from the top down or bottom up. Rather, it burned from the inside to the outside. At T minus zero, the SRB was ignited by a small solid rocket inside and at the top of the booster which shot a flame down the length of the SRB’s hollowed-out center, igniting the inside walls of the fuel “tunnel.” The flame consumed the interior circumference of the fuel as the booster burned, making the diameter of the donut hole in the middle of the fuel grow as the shuttle ascended.
* A NASA website describes the fuel as having the consistency of a “hard rubber typewriter eraser.” The description is a bit perplexing as it exists on a website that was created sometime around 2005. By that time, many younger readers had never used a typewriter, much less a “hard rubber typewriter eraser.” Leave it to NASA to use an indecipherable anachronism to describe an exotic rocket fuel.
Unfortunately, this design had a weakness. At the point where two segments came together, there was a natural path for fire to burn between the fuel in two joined segments. If flame found that path and made its way all the way to the outer skin of the booster, the results could be catastrophic. To guard against this happening, there was a set of redundant O-rings that ran the full circumference of the booster that were supposed to seal the segments and prevent hot gasses from finding a path to the metal body of the rocket containing the combustion.
Challenger was lost because both O-rings succumbed to hot gasses leaking between two segments, allowing flame to pierce the skin of the booster and burn away at both the external fuel tank and the mount that connected the booster to that tank. At almost the same instant, the hydrogen storage portion of the external tank ruptured as the flame from the booster carved an incision in it and the mount joining the SRB to the external tank failed, forcing the top of the right SRB into the top of the external tank. Challenger was no longer a sleek, aerodynamic assembly that could be controlled. It was like an airplane that had lost a wing in flight while traveling at supersonic speeds. The atmosphere ripped Challenger apart. The fuel in the external tank blossomed into a half-ignited, white and marmalade-colored ball of vapor as the SRBs, liberated from the external tank, diverged from each other, writing a “Y” in the sky with their plumes. In the final analysis, Challenger, didn’t explode; it tore apart.
Much was made of the cold weather that morning in Florida contributing to the failure of the O-rings. While the low temperatures did reduce the flexibility of the seals and increase the likelihood of hot gasses escaping, the sobering fact was that Challenger could have happened on a warm day. And in fact, since the SRBs were parachuted back to earth for reuse, data had been gathered that showed that on seven missions prior to the loss of STS-51L, there had been O-ring damage of varying degrees. More troublesome was that many of these incidents occurred on days when the temperature was quite warm; sensors measured the joint temperatures in those seven instances and they ranged from a low of around 53° to a high of around 75°, all significantly warmer than the freezing temperatures on the morning of January 28th, 1986.
The first mission that saw complete blow-by of one of the primary O-rings was halfway between the first launch of the shuttle and the destruction of Challenger. It was Dad’s first mission, STS-41D. During his maiden flight and unbeknownst to him, the only thing standing between his successful trip into orbit and certain death was a secondary O-ring which had provided just enough of a seal to keep the flames at bay. When I learned this, my skin went cold. He survived a pad abort and fire only to be within seconds of dying off the coast of Florida, sharing the fate of the Challenger crew. Fortunately, the boosters on STS-41D had run out of fuel and been jettisoned before he met the same fate as his seven friends on that eventful day in early 1986. Dad’s nine lives were going fast.
While the rapid progress in the investigation of the Challenger accident and the national sentiment to continue funding the program kept our spirits as high as they could be during this dark period, Dad was still down. He had no idea when he’d have a chance to fly in space again … or if he’d have a chance at all given the turmoil in the shuttle manifest the flight stoppage had caused. One thing was for sure, though: if he did get a chance to go into orbit a second time, it wasn’t going to be in a shuttle launched from Vandenberg.
NASA scrapped the idea of launching from the west coast because doing so meant the use of a newly designed SRB. This new type of rocket was necessary because launching south out of Vandenberg meant that the shuttle wouldn’t benefit from the earth’s eastward rotational “boost” that a launch out of KSC offered. A polar orbit launch was like taking off from the deck of an aircraft carrier without a catapult; the same rocket couldn’t carry the same amount of payload into a polar orbit that it could into an equatorial orbit. One way to counter this performance deficit was to make the shuttle stack lighter. Every pound taken out of the weight of the stack was a pound more payload the shuttle could loft into space. NASA had planned to make the system lighter by using new “filament wound” solid rocket boosters rather than the steel cases the program had used for east-coast launches. But the risk of using a whole new SRB design was considered too great and so missions from Vandenberg were scrapped. If Dad flew again, it would be out of KSC. He mourned the loss of his chance to see polar orbit.
Excerpted from the book, ‘The Father, Son and Holy Shuttle: Growing up an Astronaut’s Kid in the Glorious ’80s’, by Patrick Mullane, copyright (c) 2020 by Patrick Mullane