I was a wide-eyed, wet-behind-the-ears (read: obnoxious) co-op student in the fall of 1985. I had watched Space Shuttle launches on TV before, but that first time watching one in a NASA conference room, I was like a wriggly puppy. One of the older engineers was kind enough to translate the calls for me as we watched STS-51J launch. The countdown was delayed for some reason, but eventually the Shuttle did launch. Once the Shuttle had barely cleared the tower, most of the engineers left to go back to work, with perhaps a grunt of satisfaction or a little nod that one more bird was in the air. It was the same with STS-61A later that month. All that changed with Challenger.
I was back at school when the accident happened. Marshall Space Flight Center was squarely in the spotlight after Challenger, investigating the accident and redesigning the boosters. Many of the managers involved in the decision to launch on that cold January morning would retire. I came back for my next co-op quarter to a drastically different place.
After Challenger, we would nervously watch every Shuttle launch, wincing at the call for “Go at throttle up” and breathing a sigh of relief when the solid rocket boosters separated, two minutes into flight. It would change yet again after the Columbia accident to watching the onboard camera and waiting until main engine cutoff to breathe that sign of relief.
I can’t top Reagan’s words for the Challenger crew.